Saturday, January 5, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, Alain de Botton tweeted (yes, you may find him on Twitter @alaindebotton) “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.” Such is the case now at the beginning of a new year and I am adrift (as I often am).

I took out Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I’ve had on my shelf for ages, because I’d been unable to concentrate and was looking for something easy to read. I thought, given my recent enthusiasm with the subject, I’d be able to stay focused. I struggled with the first couple of pages, a problem I’d had with the book before, but got to this:

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it: I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”

My little brother and I were born thirteen years apart, so for the greater part of my childhood, I was an only child. I found books, made up songs and hung out with imaginary friends, basically spending a lot of time inside my head. When Lem and I were still just friends, we had a label for when I would vanish off the grid for days, not speaking to him: “cave mode.” That doesn’t happen so much now we’re together, but he can tell when I want to be alone. Now, as a novice at running (less than a novice, really), I’ve found that what I enjoy most about it is the solitude.

Murakami writes “running suits [him].” I like to think it suits me too. I know myself as an inward person, and running allows me to indulge this. He writes that “[he] runs to acquire a void.” I repeatedly have to tell myself to stop thinking. Running lets me think about everything and nothing at once.

Murakami writes “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” As a beginner, I spend a lot of time in pain. My legs, I imagine, are still getting used to all the physical labor. At any time during my runs, my calves, thighs, feet or entire legs act out. They scream bloody murder. There are many occasions where, as Troy on Community puts it, my “whole brain is crying.”

Murakami writes “Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.” Three months ago, doing some research, I’d come across a blog on the benefits of running. The writer said that people who take up running start preferring healthy sources of fuel over the usual heavy fare. The diet eventually falls into place without too much bloodshed. Six months ago, you’d have found me topping off a bag of pork rinds by myself, but now, I find it easier to stay away from junk food.

Murakami’s reflections in the book come nearly 25 years after he first started running. The man has run at least one marathon a year since. But for me, in this fledgling stage, nursing a small ember that could go out any minute, I can’t even conceive successfully running a 5K. When he writes that he probably knows pain better than anyone else, I believe him. What I feel on my runs is child’s play. Running is ingrained in his life, whereas I'm still discovering what it means. It is a great divide, to be sure, but I feel like his words belong to me.

I’ve only known Murakami through his strange/ beautiful novels, but it is with this book that I feel closest to him as a writer. His thoughts on writing novels being a physical act (“…a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion”) remind me of long days finishing papers for graduate school and offer a glimpse of the months I will be drafting my thesis. When I read about his epiphany to become a novelist professionally, I became mindful of the decisions I must eventually make about my own pursuits.

For a while, I didn’t mind what had been happening to my body because I thought I was paying more attention to keeping my mind in shape. I realize now how that thinking has to change. Murakami also wonders “…a person’s mind is controlled by his body, right? Or is it the opposite – the way your mind works influences the structure of the body? Or do the body and mind closely influence each other and act on each other?” At this point, I’m inclined to agree with the third. I think even the Mentat have something to say about that somewhere.

Last year, I struggled with a hostile attitude and a lot of negativity. I’m beginning to think it had something to do with how badly I’d been treating my body. Again, Murakami gives me the right words: “…an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.” My soul is inescapably unhealthy, but I’m hoping taking better care of myself will balance out that darkness.

Murakami writes of "runner's blues": "At the same time that I'd lost something, something new had also taken root deep within me as a runner. And most likely this process of one thing exiting while another comes in had produced this unfamiliar runner's blues." Even now, I'm still in limbo and suspect that will be the case for the next couple of months. But I'm not worried anymore. This drifty-ness is a necessary pain, like muscles being conditioned for new heights of exertion. Things don't look too bad from where I'm standing. The right book can help you see that.

4 seen below:

Nay not Yay said...

I know about wanting to stay away from heavier fare and gravitating towards easy reads. In my case, though, I have stayed away from books for years. Sad really, as I
TMZ and Perezhilton get the lion's share of my attention these days. I find reading books to be confrontational and it might be because I'm slightly narcissistic and I can't help but project myself into the stories I read.

Anyway, I'm a new reader and a new fan. I hope to read more from you.

kubiyat said...

Hello! I sometimes get into reading slumps, but eventually get out, most of the time with the right book. I hope you take up reading books again, especially now when there are so many great reading communities off- and online. Also, I think it's natural to project yourself into the stories you read. But I do agree that reading books can be confrontational; good writing often tells the truth.

Thanks for stopping by and taking time to leave a comment. I hope to see you here again :)

Nay not Yay said...

:) How do you feel about ebooks? You seem to be the tree-hugging kind (a compliment) so I assume you're all for them? Or are you a paper purist? I ask because I have been given a ton of ebooks and I was wondering if you'd like to be sent copies of them?

kubiyat said...

Hi! I used to read paper exclusively, but have been learning to enjoy ebooks :)

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