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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: The Arrogance of “I’m soooo busy”

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). 


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Norweigan Wood: A Sexy Tale


I only very recently learned about Haruki Murakami, which is scandalous on a number of counts, not the least being he is a Big. Deal. The Guardian describes him as “among the world’s greatest living novelists,” friends who worked at book shops report his books “flying” off shelves, and colleagues who don’t read – ever – know of his work. So. There you have it, self-proclaimed “reader” that I am, I can still be blind to bestselling and award winning sensations. Of course now that I have read Norwegian Wood I’ve started to see Murakami’s name all over the place – in The Globe and Mail this morning! It all makes me wonder what other brilliant novels are hiding in plain sight, obscured by my dedication to all things Can lit and my haphazard method for choosing what to read. All this to say I’m glad I morphed a category of 10-10-12 to allow for books recommended. It now becomes incumbent upon you to look after the breadth of my reading…

In any case, the book itself: I wanted very much to like Norwegian Wood. It had all sorts of things a good novel might have – sex, sadness, suicide (take that alliteration snobs!). For awhile I thought it might be the overwhelming sadness of the story that kept me from fully committing to the narrative, but by the end of the book I’d realized that I just didn’t believe the protagonist, Toru. Despite first person narration, I never felt like I had a good explanation for why Toru felt or acted the way he did. The emotional thrust of the narrative are Toru’s relationships with Naoko  and Midori, but I was never convinced that Toru felt much of anything for either of them, despite his claims to the reader and to the women that he loved them. 

That said, the novel has some great sexy scenes (and so the basis for the recommendation) that I’d reread if they weren’t also pretty sad. Speaking of, the novel does sadness very well, which feels like an odd thing to praise a novel for, but there you have it. A sadness born of the unwitting loneliness of all three characters who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to reach out to other people, only to find that relationships of all sorts are complicated by unrealistic or unacknowledged expectations, personal limitations, and the ambient circumstances of lives led. I suppose on the metatextual level I found the narrative itself a lonely one – reaching out to this reader, but finding another instance where feeling cannot be adequately conveyed and so reasonably shared.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner