The Short Version: Part memoir, part essay collection, part set of reflections, acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami turns his attention to the other dominant ‘thing’ in his life – running. Over the course of two or so years, he reflects on what it means to run, to write, and to grow older.
The Review: So I wasn’t supposed to read this next. I was stymied as to what would be my next book off of my seemingly unshrinking to-read shelf and so I asked for some advice from a friend. He recommended the book that I’m going to read NEXT (although, in the end, it was actually a coin toss) – but leaving work yesterday, I found myself facing two train trips (one to the Fringe show I’ve been working on and one back to my apartment after it went up) without anything to read… except this, which happened to be in my bag. And, like a drug addict faced with withdrawal or whatever substance he can get his hands on, I cracked this open.
I feel like I’ve transgressed a bit in making this my first Murakami book. After all, Kafka on the Shore has been sitting on my shelf for nearly a year now and 1Q84 was the big book of last year. But here we are and I feel far less… intimidated? at eventually picking up one of Mr. Murakami’s novels. Something about his writing – having, as I’ve said, read approximately NONE of it, ever – has loomed over my literary career and I don’t entirely know why. I love incredibly imaginative writing and that sounds like Murakami to a T… but there’s also something intimidating about the scope of his imagination. As though I’d be tried and found wanting, perhaps. I say this as someone proud of the (so far) boundless limits of my own imagination. It all seems a little silly but there you have it.
Anyway, I had no idea what this book would hold for me – but Murakami put me at ease on literally the first page. He opens the foreword with the following:
There’s a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually, this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry!
And I laughed, out loud, on the platform at 23rd Street and knew I’d be okay. Murakami’s pleasant conversational style throughout the book is almost – and forgive me, Mr. Murakami, for this comparison – makes me think of a really great GP. You go in and you’re kind of nervous because you haven’t had a checkup in like two years and before you know it you’re laughing and joking and he’s sending you on your way and you realize that wasn’t bad at all. I saw a sort of kindred spirit or something in the prose and I was immediately put at ease.
I wouldn’t call myself a runner, per se – although I’d say that I do enjoy running and try to make the time to do it as often as I can. Which isn’t all that often / I should make more time for it. I’m one of those people, like Murakami’s wife, who doesn’t need to work to keep off the weight – which, as he succinctly points out, is going to cause me a problem in the future for not keeping up my physical well-being – and so I will take the extra 45 minutes of sleep instead of getting my ass up for a run. But the simple serenity of running – the void to which you run towards – truly cannot be replicated in any other way. Once you push through the initial pain and the “oh my god” of it all and you find yourself just moving forward and you let your mind off the chain a bit… it’s a lovely thing, really.
The book is very much about this void and the way that thoughts then sort of spill out of you. Murakami talks about how his decision to become a runner and his decision to become a novelist almost coincided – and how his writing would be very different if he weren’t a runner. It’s also fascinating to me, in general, that he picked both of these things up “later in life”. I mean, he was 29/30 when he started writing – and running. It makes me wonder if I’m trying too hard for things to happen right now. But that’s another issue. He has some remarkable insights on the writing process littered throughout this novel, which makes it a memoir worth reading for anyone who is even remotely serious about putting pen to paper. He’s frank about it, too, saying things like “if you don’t have the talent, you’re probably never going to.” That’s a paraphrased quote, by the way, but that’s the idea. You can’t work too hard for things – just like with running.
As much as I enjoy running, I am not a distance runner. I enjoy running a few miles – but I’d also just as easily play a pick-up game of soccer instead. I have the utmost respect for the people who do run long distances (my marathon friends, if you’re reading this, that does in fact mean each and every one of you) and it’s fascinating to hear someone speak at length about the experience. The anecdotes of the various races Murakami has run are terrific. The man ran from Athens to Marathon, he’s run the New York & Boston Marathons, he’s done triathlons – he’s even run an ultramarathon, which is something I had never even known existed. That was actually perhaps the most interesting essay (if we can call the individual chapters essays) in the whole book. The toll it takes, mentally and physically, on a human body – not matter how much training you’ve done – to run 62 miles. 62 miles. I mean, holy shit.
But more than being about writing or running, this is a book about the human body and aging. It’s fascinating, actually, to realize that that’s what the book is about – and to see how eloquently Murakami writes on the subject. I’ve watched my parents’ bodies start to show signs of aging in ways that they’re both struggling with and I’m not too proud to admit that there are mornings when I wake up and wonder what the hell I did to make my body feel this way – and I’m still a young man by anyone’s standard. But Murakami writes it with such unassuming grace: human bodies are meant to get older and deteriorate in strange ways and no matter what you do, your marathon times will increase as the years pile on. You will get farsighted. You will have strange and inexplicable knee pains. It’s all just a question of how you take care of yourself overall. Both mentally and physically.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Murakami writes that he doesn’t want to be the sort of person who tells others how to live their lives – and he doesn’t. But he also says that if someone reads this book and then decides to become a runner, he’d be touched. I think he’s struck a perfect middle ground here: he’s recording some interesting (and intelligent) observations on himself and occasionally broadly applying them to the universal Human Being and you can either take it or leave it. I, for one, found it to be a lovely reminder that staying in shape physically keeps you in better mental shape. That the body can do amazing things if you train it. So why the hell not? You only live once.
Oh, and his descriptions of living in Cambridge and Boston made me smile. Anyone who sees that city the same way I do just makes me happy.