Haruki Murakami remembers the exact moment he first thought of writing a book.
It was 1978 and he was watching a baseball game. As the runner approached second base, Murakami suddenly thought, “You know what? I could write a novel.”
Four years later he sold his successful jazz bar to concentrate on a book. Worried that as a sedentary writer he would gain weight, he started to run.
Since then, he explains in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a “memoir centered on the act of running,” long-distance running has been central to his life.
“I’ve jogged almost every day, run in at least one marathon every year – twenty-three up until now – and participated in more long-distance races all around the world than I care to count,” he writes. He runs every day “unless it’s totally unavoidable” not to. It adds up to about 36 miles a week.
"Long-distance running suits my personality,” he adds modestly.
What it also suits is his profession. Murakami duly notes the similarities between running and writing: Both are solitary pursuits requiring “quiet, inner motivation” and the true rewards of both exist beyond the realm of the “outwardly visible.”
Murakami is among the most widely read of contemporary Japanese authors. (His novels include “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”)
But you need be neither runner nor writer to find resonance in this slender but lucid meditation. The insights Murakami shares on the way he has determined to best live his life – interspersed with a vivid physical sense of how it feels to put foot to road in various settings and climes – transcend either track or page.
Murakami uses these essays to peer back in time and examine the patterns that took shape in both his running and writing lives. “There’s no need to be literature’s top runner,” he came to see. When it comes to running, the main thing is “not the speed or distance” but the consistent effort.
In 1996 Murakami competed in an ultramarathon (62 miles) in northern Japan. He tells of a magical moment after mile 47 when he moved from agony to transcendence. Then, after the race, he slipped into “runner’s blues” and thought for a time that he’d exhausted his love for running.
But it has since returned, and Murakami says he’ll continue to run, focused on “how much I enjoy myself.” The joy of running, he tells us, “can’t be expressed in numbers.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.