A collection of personal essays about writing, endurance, and running, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running considers the impact the sport has had on the author’s life and work.
The book, translated into English in 2008, ostensibly is a memoir-in-essays about Murakami’s attempt to train for the 2005 New York City Marathon. Over the course of nine short pieces the author details his training regimen and reflects on what running means to him. In lean, fast-moving prose, Murakami puts forth an assortment of anecdotes, thoughts, and insights related to running, with little concern for whether or not the collection reads as cohesive.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which plays on the title of Raymond Carver’s famous short story collection, centers on the author’s own experiences as a long-distance runner. Near the start of the book Murakami disavows the responsibility of convincing non-runners to start running, and he rarely references what other thinkers and athletes have written or said about the subject. His project is inward focused, and based on the hope that whatever he talks about when he talks about running is in fact interesting or useful to others.
The book does draw a neat parallel between writing and running. In an early essay Murakami explains that he only began running after he started writing professionally. The author initially just wanted a form of exercise to offset the time he spent at his desk, but he quickly discovered that running, like writing, requires endurance and focus. The more he pushed his body, the more he felt he could push his mind. In later essays Murakami sporadically develops the idea of writing and running as mutually reinforcing activities, but not the point that it can act as a thesis for the book.
If the collection is primarily a runner’s diary, it also reads in part as a writer’s memoir. Beyond discussing the link between writing and running as activities, Murakami sometimes directly discusses his work, whether he’s remembering how he wrote his first novels while managing a jazz bar or lamenting the decline of his creative output. In one of the book’s most interesting passages, the best-selling novelist reveals that he cares little for competition: he publishes books and races marathons simply for his love of running and writing. While the sentiment easily could feel disingenuous coming from an internationally renowned author, Murakami does come across as a reserved and private person in these essays.
Elements of travelogue are also present in the collection. The author hops around the world across essays, from Greece to Tokyo to Hawaii to Boston; essays tend to describe a race he ran in the past, while looking forward to the upcoming NYC Marathon. Murakami’s utilitarian prose unfortunately doesn’t lend itself well to descriptive writing, and he rarely discusses the customs or history of the places he visits. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the author’s many half-hearted portraits-of-places are meant to conceal his book’s lack of substance.
While many have found the collection inspiring, it came across as a bit slight to me. Scattered across the essays are several memorable quotes about persistence, solitude, and determination, but the essays meander and feel disconnected from each other. In the book’s introduction, Murakami self-consciously questions what exactly he’s written, and reading it, I had the sense that the author stretched what would have made an engaging extended essay or feature into a full-length book. In spite of the collection’s flaws, though, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a quick read, and fans of Murakami and longtime runners will find much to appreciate about the essays.