Thursday, April 1, 2010

Literary Bite: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This book annoyed me. Which was disappointing because I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami’s 1995 novel), and I like running (duh).

So What I Talk About When I Talk About Running should be my kind of book. But it isn’t.

I’ve seen this book around, and I feel like there’s been some buzz since the English translation came out in 2008. But mostly that’s because Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous contemporary writers, tends to generate buzz.

What annoys me is that Murakami is a runner, but he’s nothing that special. But then he gets to write a self-serving book about it, just because he is already famous. It’s too reminiscent of how actresses suddenly get record deals, or bikers can become “famous” marathoners (yes, Lance, I’m looking at you). I’m happy when authors write about running, and I’m happy when anyone becomes a runner. But for some reason, the book strikes me as very arrogant.

Murakami does run a lot. He averages 6 miles a day, six days a week, has run over 20 marathons, an ultra marathon, and a few triathalons. Which is impressive…but…well…there are plenty of people out there who have done the same and more. So perhaps he needs to get over himself?

 It is a remarkably passive book. Passive aggressive, that is (and anyone who knows me knows how I absolutely abhor passive aggressiveness). Why passive aggressive? Well, it’s passive in that he writes in his “kind of a memoir” that running is “sort of a vague theme.”

An astute NYT Reviewer pointed out, “He’s the ‘type of person,’ ‘kind of person’ — I lost track of the number of times this came up — who likes ‘sort of laid-back’ music and is ‘sort of a brazen person’ who sometimes has ‘a sort of arrogant attitude.’”


If that’s not passive, I don’t know what is. But then it’s passive aggressive because obviously he wants you to keep reading the book. He is indirectly forcing his passiveness on his readers. And that’s just obnoxious.

Do you see what I mean? Is that annoying to anyone else? Or am I just hangry as I write this?

I do like the inscription he wants on his tombstone:

Haruki Murakami


Writer (and Runner)

At Least He Never Walked

You have to admit, that is kind of fun.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running wasn’t a complete disaster. It’s just a nothing book that you will finish in about a day, and forget in half that time.

More Stuff:

NYT Review

 Runner's World Interview


Haruki Murakami Biography


  1. Could NOT agree more. I was excited to read this book, even though I wasn't that thrilled by Kafka on the Shore (my only other Murakami exposure) -- but just because its subject was purportedly the intersection of writing and running, a topic dear to my heart. But it was so blah! Maybe it's that writing and distance running are both such internal pursuits that it's hard to write about them together in an way that's interesting to anybody but yourself...

    I wonder how much the "kind of"/"sort of" problem is the translator's, though.

  2. there seems to be some sort of market for more-or-less ordinary people who do cool but not singularly astounding things and sometimes only half-way succeed at them and yet publish those "exploits" in a book. I've read a few of these and I can't help but think to myself: "Couldn't the publisher have found someone a little more authoritative?"

    An example of where this works out well anyway is: "A Walk in the Woods" -where Bill Bryson gives his entertaining account of hiking (part of) the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the AT is a real accomplishment deserving of some respect (in my view) but lots of people have done it - some, several times - and somehow resisted the urge to write a book to tell everyone else how great they are.

    Of course, Bryson's book has the infinitely redeeming quality that it is side-splittingly funny. I loved the book and would recommend it to anyone, but still; he should have finished the trail.

    I liked that book, but an example of a book that ticked me off a bit was "The Idea Factory" by Pepper White, where he shares an account of a couple years of grad school at MIT and offers some opinions on what it's all meant to him. MIT is a great place - though several orders of magnitude less cool than BU by the way - and working through the rigors of a degree program there is something worth being proud of (a little). But still, about a thousand folks walk down that graduation aisle every year along with a bunch of graduate students too; there are bigger things in life than this. Besides, like Bryson, Pepper didn't really achieve his full goal of also getting a Phd.

    Unlike Bryson, Pepper's writing isn't so great, isn't that funny, and you get the sense that if he spent less time thinking of himself and how great he is, he might have done a little better. Besides, he bagged on navy guys; that might have pissed me off a little.

    There are lots of other examples - but I'm sure you've got some too: "White Coat" - where a privileged wealthy person progresses through med school (now THAT's a "unique" story), "The Collar" where some guy writes of his experiences in seminary. Again, both about fairly average people doing cool but not unique things, yet giving the impression that they see themselves as pretty awesome.

    Anyway - Whoa - sorry, this is a long comment. I liked your post though and I couldn't help blabbing.

    Have a great Easter weekend.

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Atlanta's could be on to something with the translator issue...I wish I spoke japanese (or knew someone who did)...maybe they have a passive tense that doesn't exist in English?

    And Lee - TOTALLY agreed. I was kind of surprised/disappointed that Bryson didn't finish the AT, but he totally made up for it in the humor dept! I think the reason that book was so good is because it was first and foremost a humor novel...second a book on hiking.

    And duly noted, I will be sure to avoid those other books! People are so self-important (says the blogger, ha!), give me something RELEVANT or at least amusing if you're going to write about yourself!