G. bought me Haruki Murakami’s *What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* for my birthday this year. It was a thoughtful gift in that the book combines the things I love best in the world: running, writing and reading. Alas, shortly before my birthday I sustained a concussion and was unable to read or run for several weeks (a near intolerable state). In any case, between the concussion and its recovery (I’m only now able to run 15km at a time) I hesitated to read Murakami’s book. I suspected (rightly) that whatever his intention, I was going to read the book as an indictment against non-runners and a clarion call to pick up my shoes.
Hence reading the book now that I’m able to run again. And I’m glad I waited. Sure the book is about a lot of other things, among them the “making” of time for things like running, the illumination that comes from solitude, the benefits of self-awareness in defining and reaching goals and the need for determination and courage in meeting these goals. More explicitly the book is also a book about writing and the writers life. A sort of metaphoric welding of how (long distance) running-is-like-writing and how writing-is-like-running: both require determination, focus, sacrifice and solitude.
And both, for Murakami, are to be admired. Oh sure, at several points in the book he makes claims about how these things he does – long distance running or writing – are just his personal preferences and *not* to be mistaken for declarations of what *should* be for everyone, and yet, an unmistakable tone of arrogance and self-satisfied judgements underpins these very claims. For instance, on discussing his choice in shoes, he writes “I like the fact that this brand of shoes doesn’t have any extra bells and whistles. This is just my personal preference nothing more. Each person has his own likes […] They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal” (92). In setting up the shoes as the bare-bones runners and putting these in contrast with the “average consumer” who will be taken in by “gimmicks” (bright colours? snappy laces?) Murakami implicitly makes himself – the exceptional consumer – one who is wise to the gimmick and a “real” runner. The rest of us, who hold our “personal preferences” just happen to have a crasser preference.
This tone that says on the one hand “to each her own” and the other “but other approaches are inferior” smacks of an arrogance that I found tough to get past. Much as I felt the book was written for me – a reader, a runner, a writer – and much as I could identify with the parallels he drew among these activities, I couldn’t get past the quiet arrogance that permeated the text that argued for these activities as superior. That by taking part in marathons (and Murakami pointed out that he’s also done ultramarathons the *real* marathon in the age of the bucket list and that in his younger years he ran marathons in “good” times inviting, of course, the observation that there are “bad” times) Murakami was proving his credentials as a masochist. Sort of like the colleague who constantly complains of being “sooooo” busy, or the insomniac who takes pleasure in how little sleep he gets “I’m sooooo tired” as if to take you to task for managing your time well, or getting enough sleep for health, or – heaven forbid – enjoy social sports, watching television, running a mere 4:30 marathon and buying shoes in bright colours.
And clearly I do identify with parts of Murakmi’s work and attitude to non-runners. I started out this post, after all, pointing out that I *do* run, talking about how far I run and explaining away my slow arrival to the book. So yes, I see myself in the arrogance of the long-distance runner, and I don’t like it. So perhaps a point of praise in that I like to think I’ll be more deliberate and circumspect in my discussions of exercise.
For all these complaints I’d still suggest the book if you run – or perhaps it would be better still if you didn’t – or write (though it is a book much more about running than writing) because it offers space to think about the deliberate construction of our identities by way of the habits we adopt, practice and come to see as essential to who we are. That these identities must be worked upon and worked over – that we cannot be writers unless we write, nor runners unless we run – but that there is flexibility in these categories, too, that we can call these our identities our own even if we do not inhabit them with perfection or even to our own ideal. That sometimes we can be satisfied with having done the thing at all (but never, in this book at least, if we didn’t bother to try).