Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Japanese Title: 走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Yay! Another Murakami book has come out in paperback! Yay! It’s translated by Philip Gabriel (the author of Spirit Matters: The Translucent in Modern Japanese Literature and veteran Murakami translator)!
Some critics say that people would read Stephen King’s grocery list if he published it. Although I’m not sure I would go that far, I certainly enjoyed King’s essay On Writing. Although I was disappointed that the newest Murakami translation isn’t one of his earlier novels (Hear the Wind Sing, for example, or Pinball, 1973) or his latest novel (1Q84) but a memoir-length essay on running, I decided to go ahead and read it. Because some writers, yes, I will read anything they publish. Even a log of miles run per month.
Over the course of my career as a student of Japanese, I have come to realize that the essay is still a thriving form of literature in Japan. It sometimes seems like every popular writer from Yoshimoto Banana to Murakami Ryū has at some point published at least one collection of essays. Instead of taking the form of concentrated inquiries into a single subject in the style of John McPhee, however, most of these essays are personal in nature and written in a light-hearted tone. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is much the same. The memoir is conversational rather than educational and a pleasure to read.
In short, Murakami is preparing to run in the 2005 New York City Marathon. He has found that, as he gets older, it becomes harder to train and to run marathons in the amount of time that he would like to. Therefore, partly as refection, and partly as inspiration, he writtes a series of essays as he prepares to run in New York. These essays take him from Hawaii to Japan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from summer into fall, and years into the past. He writes about running in Tokyo, running in Greece, running in triathlons, running in ultra-marathons, running next to Olympic runners, running next to John Updike, running next to Harvard freshmen, and running next to rivers. He talks about his decision to start running and his decision to become a writer. Everything is equally interesting.
The tone of the book is honest and self-effacing. Although it’s quiet, Murakami has a definite sense of humor that balances out his more contemplative passages. Aside from the fact that I don’t think he mentions drinking whiskey or cooking spaghetti even once, Murakami could very well be one of his infinitely personable narrators. Even though I have almost zero interest in running (or writing novels) myself, I was fascinated by these essays. I’m glad they were translated and published in America.