The Half Way Through Review – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Welcome to The Half Way Through Review…

About a fortnight ago I accidentally made a bet with my little sister that I could beat her in a marathon. Since I only tend to run when there are big scary people in pursuit (i.e. when playing rugby), this was a fairly stupid bet to make. Sibling rivalry will not carry me through all 26.2 miles of pain so my Book and Beer Club friends recommended some reading for inspiration. God knows I need the motivation….

The book they lent me was What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami. Its title suggests a memoir of distance running, with a long distance title to match, but it may as well be about novel writing. Either way a very apt read considering my summer plans.

From my marathon inspired Googling I concluded that it is the go-to book about running for anyone with a literary bone in their body. In fact it’s been read and reviewed by approximately five million wannabe runner-writers and in several different languages too I’m sure of it. (I didn’t read them)

I’ve half read Murakami before, in the form of Norwegian Wood, and quite enjoyed the transporting effect of his poetic prose before shelving it for another book*. Given my inability to finish reading any book, regardless of its inherent greatness, it is reassuring to find this Murakami is easy access. Written in a gentle conversational style, rather than the dark-and-twisty-ness of the novels, it flows in time from present-day marathon training back and forth across 25 years of his life.

I’m not sure the book could be classified as a bona fide sports memoir, Murakami doesn’t count himself as an athlete from what I understand, and his ability to use language blows the sports jocks out of the water.  It doesn’t sit well on a shelf with footballers, boxers and cricketers. It’s seems to me more of a memoir memoir because there are too many aspects of life in the pages to be confined to a genre.

Murakami began running in ’82 and has since run a marathon a year, every year, clocking up an average of 6 miles daily over 365 days a year in training. He has also written a fair few novels and other works of international renown. He talks at length about his routines both in running and writing throughout the book.  Discipline and endurance are plain to see in both his hobby and profession; comparisons between the two are sewn into the very spine of it.  His ability to knuckle down is quite inspiring and the self deprecating way Murakami suggests his focus makes up for a lack of talent is endearing. He puts all his success down to hard work, sweating his way through each novel, like he does the punishing miles of a marathon.

However, I can’t help but thinking that, while his lifestyle clearly suits him well (the dude was pushing  60 when he wrote this and still running marathons!), his rigid work ethic lacks space for spontaneity. As someone of lesser talent, I need external stimuli for inspiration sometimes, and I’m left wondering slightly in awe that he plucks all that wordage from his head alone. Occasionally he can be a bit serious. That’s when I find myself wanting to drag him to the pub (or a jazz bar) for a crazy night out.

That said, a quiet humour permeates; I can imagine him smiling to himself in some sentences. Each chapter is accurately stamped with a date and location (from Hawaii to Tokyo to Cambridge, MA) and labelled with titles such as “Even if I had a ponytail back then” and “Who’s going to laugh at Mick Jagger?”.  The sense of time and space is accentuated by detailed descriptions of his training runs which he clearly loves. My favourite parts of the book, other than the training runs, are the times when he gets all philosophical and off on a tangent about getting older/slower.

As yet I don’t know whether What I talk about will provide enough motivation to complete The Marathon Bet but so far it has inspired a determined writing work ethic which was previously so lacking. The Final Verdict: I might actually go the full distance with this book.

*I very rarely finish a book as those of you who followed me from www.frontlip.eu will know, hence The Half Way Through Review.

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