Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Part I)

Posted on August 10, 2010

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A few weeks ago at the Harvard bookstore, I had the opportunity to hear Maile Meloy discuss her new book Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.  It is a collection of short stories (beautifully crafted ones I might add) from an author has primarily published novels in recent history.  Of course a cheeky audience member brought up the fact that Meloy did indeed have it both ways–first novels, and now short stories–and then asked if Meloy had had to make any special preparations to switch between the two forms.  Meloy smiled at the comment–she’s quite personable–and replied succinctly that she had had to find her pacing, that the “difference between short stories and novels was like the difference between a sprint and a marathon.”  At this my ears perked up.  I’m not a fiction writer at heart.  A fiction reader, certainly, but I enjoy composing op-eds and even lab reports more than I do creative work (creative nonfiction notwithstanding).  So when Meloy compared her own trade to something I love and understand, running (not jogging, mind), she had me hooked.  A flurry of thoughts went racing through me (pun entirely intended).  In what other ways was writing like running?  They’re both very solitary, for one, requiring very little equipment or interaction with the outside world.   Shoes, socks, shirt or pen, notebook, ink: the tools are similarly simple.  But on a more subtle level too, running and writing have had similar and parallel influences on my life.

Two days later, at the public library, I happened to find Haruki Murukami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on the “just returned” cart.  Gleeful that my life could have such gruesomely obvious foreshadowing, I checked out the lone copy.  The back cover blurb was promising: a combination of a training journal for the New York City marathon and a philosophical, personal history of obsession and insight.  And the blurb even used “intersect” to refer to the juxtaposition of running and writing.  “Intersect” is my favorite word of late, a catchphrase for my life.  I also laughed when I saw that both Sports Illustrated and the Hartford Couranthad offered positive endorsements.  The backflap promised that both fans of Murukami and athletic folk would delight in the book.  Now I had never heard of Murukami before seeing this piece, so previously I fell into the latter category squarely.  But after reading What I Talk About, I find myself a member of the former as well.

The very first thing that struck me about Murukami’s prose was its simplicity, spareness even.  (Sure, it’s translated from Japanese, but even so the writing is so easy, so genuine that it can’t all be the work of the language shift.)  But something felt so familiar about his style and it bothered me for several days that I couldn’t place the association.  Now I get it.  The memoir is written in roughly the structure that my thoughts follow when I go on long, slow, meditative runs.

Let me explain. When I run, my thoughts do not stay fixed on one topic, or string, for very long.  I go from watermelons, to problem sets, to the quickness in my stride.  I would not say that I free associate.  Rather, my mind travels down a trail similar to the one I’m physically running, full of ideas at each turn; it too moves forward with my muscles.  I do often write on my runs, or at least outline various essays.  I might do freewrites, entire paragraphs, and occasionally entire articles.  I definitely come up with the best and cleverest lines on runs.  The fact that I run in the morning probably helps: my head is clear and my body yet unburdened by the day’s digestion and muscular fatigue.  And if you’re curious, yes, I did write much of this essay on a run.

Of course there are days when I think of little else but how I’d like to be finished with a run.  Murukami too admits and accepts that self-doubt and lack of willpower befall him, and can plague any runner.  And while I certainly enjoy the runs where I can go on endlessly and need to force myself to stop, I take away from the mediocre, fair, and rotten runs as well.  It’s not that I gain after-school special-lessons about perseverance, but I am learning something about my physical and mental stamina and ability to set then accomplish goals on each run. Sometimes on these expeditions I contemplate these concepts actively, but often I just assimilate them.

But there I go, rambling like a runner.  Still I think I’ve given a solid description of Murukami’s style, at least indirectly.

I’ll talk about Murukami’s philosophical musings in my next post.

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Posted in: Book Review