This charming, sober little book tells the story of how, shortly after Murakami embarked on a career as a novelist, he was blindsided by an even unlikelier idea: to go for a run. One can understand his surprise. At the time, he was smoking 60 cigarettes a day. He had never been an athlete. But he was a solitary person, and before long, he was hooked.
Runners will find a kindred soul on these pages. Here is everyman, hitting the pavement, falling into that peculiar mental void that opens up on a long jog. He endures the indignities of the sport, too. Completing his first marathon in Greece in midsummer, his sweat dries so fast, it leaves behind smears of salt. "When I lick my lips," he writes, "they taste like anchovy paste."
Since that race, Murakami has run a marathon every year without fail. "What I Talk About When I Talk about Running" skips around these races, circuitously filling out Murakami's thoughts on running as it links to writing -- the two habits becoming a feedback loop. In this sense, the book provides a fascinating portrait of Murakami's working mind and how he works his magic on the page.
Since the early 1990s, with novels ("Dance Dance Dance") and stories ("The Elephant Vanishes"), he has been one of the world's most vibrant, spontaneous storytellers -- a modern-day Kafka. Apparently, though, there is no magic to what he does. "Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor," Murakami writes. "I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity."
This droll little book reminds us how he has pounded at that bedrock, one mile at a time. - John Freeman
John Freeman is finishing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir
by Haruki Murakami, Knopf, 192 pp., $20