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What I Don't Want to Read When I Read About Running or Writing

  • Apr 17, 2010
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I hate to say it, but this is probably the worst thing I've read by Murakami.

On paper--or rather, on the back of the paperback--it sounded like a sure thing; I'm a writer, and I've got a few marathons under my belt, and I was spellbound by the three other books I've read of his. So I thought I'd hit the trifecta when I pulled this off the shelf at Border's and saw that he'd written about writing and running.

And by and large, I felt a rush of excitement in the early chapters, a sensation not unlike the fresh lively feeling one gets at the start of a marathon, when the exhilaration far outweighs the effort that's been expended. It's fascinating, for instance, to read that he'd been the owner of a small jazz nightclub and hadn't had any particular ambitions to be a writer until he was in his 30s. I couldn't identify with that, but I could relate to his persistent attitude about writing. There's a romanticized notion of writers living the bad life, drinking and smoking and doing their best to churn out a great manuscript or two before their hard living catches up with them. (I've lived that life, but in my experience it doesn't necessarily make one a better writer, unless one's writing about what it feels like to drink and smoke, and that eventually makes for boring reading. This "But-Hemingway-did-it!" attitude often eventually becomes just an extra excuse to drink and smoke. Anyway, I digress.) It turns out that the lessons of physical fitness--persistence, mental toughness, goal-setting--can be far more useful and applicable to writing, a lesson Murakami and I have both apparently learned.

But those insights are, by and large, done by the midway point, and what remains is a long and boring slog. I've heard that a writer should never confuse how they feel about a story with how good the story actually is, and Murakami would have done well to heed this advice; his training efforts and race times were obviously near and dear and dear to his heart, but they make for rather unexciting reading. Also, his observations and analyses often come off as flat and uninspired; as an author, he's great at conjuring up memorably fantastic scenarios that still seem real, characters that feel full, and plots that work like a Swiss watch, but without the ability to make things up and take them in unexpected directions, he's reduced to stating banalities like "Nobody's going to win all the time. On the highway of life you can't always be in the fast lane."

To be fair, I'm possibly a little jealous. Murakami's enough of an established author that he could probably print out, say, every email he's sent in the last ten years, staple them together and call them a book, and sell a kajillion copies, whereas some of us are still toiling away in obscurity, unable to sell manuscripts over which we've slaved for years. But it seems even Murakami has the sense that this is a substandard work. After describing a disappointing performance at the Boston Marathon, he says, "This may be a sort of conclusion. An understated, rainy-day sneakers sort of conclusion. An anticlimax, if you will. Turn it into a screenplay, and the Hollywood producer would just glance at the last page and toss it back." Elsewhere, he mentions reworking the manuscript many times; while some amount of revision is obviously necessary, too much ends up leaving the writer with no sense of perspective on whether or not the work's any good. Like a jogger slogging towards the finish line, one ends up thinking about just getting the damn thing done with and resting for a while.

In lieu of this, I'd suggest getting Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird, which doesn't have any fitness tips but is perhaps the best book I've ever read about writing. But if your desire to read is as automatic as Murakami's desire to run, you may end up picking this up anyway. And if you're anything like me you may end up turning the final page wearily, muttering the tired marathoner's frequent post-race lament: "Never again."

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More What I Talk About When I Talk ... reviews
review by . June 23, 2010
A friend gave this to me for travel reading and inspiration just before I ran my last marathon. The book turned out to be an interesting read, but isn't much about running at all. There are certainly moments that are inspiring, and indeed reading the book on the plane and finishing it just before bed the night before the marathon definitely helped to put me in a positive frame of mind and get me pumped up for the race. However, despite that, the book is not truly about running, but about Murakami's …
Quick Tip by . July 06, 2010
This book is less about running and more about life.
About the reviewer

Ranked #239
Alfonso Mangione has a Clark Kent job that involves managing data for a small telecommunications company.At night, he's been spottedswooping through the blogosphere at www.alfonsomangione.blogspot.com. … more
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