Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Running Writer

On occasion I have read a book review that was so thoroughly negative that I wondered “What is the point of publishing such a negative review?” Why, when there are so many books from which to choose and so many good ones, waste paper, ink, space and time with a negative one? I’m reading reviews to find books that I want to read, not books that I don’t want to read. So now I find myself on the other side of the table. I have read a book about which I was planning to write for this blog. But I have been so disappointed in the book. Should I still write the blog? Do readers want a negative opinion? Years from now, will it be a candidate for my own “Oops!” list? (See NY Times 10.06.1996 for a sampling of reviews that history has judged differently.) But I did read it and I do have an opinion - so here goes.

I am a runner. I have run two marathons and hope to do a third next month. With luck, a good physical therapist and some discipline, I look forward to running for a long time. So What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by Haruki Murakami, was an irresistible choice. Murakami describes himself as a running writer. He has completed many marathons, triathlons and an ultra-marathon, many of which he describes in this book. He has published more than ten novels (including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), many short stories and a non-fiction account of the Tokyo gas attack in 1995. From the book jacket one learns that he has won many prizes for his writing.

It’s not that his life is not interesting. He describes owning and running a bar. He runs the original marathon course in Greece – in reverse! The unifying thread of the book is his preparation for running the New York City marathon in 2005. Much of the preparation takes place in Hawaii and Japan and Murakami includes some informative descriptions of the various locales. He has the best description of a sixteen-year-old that I ever expect to read: “Sixteen is an intensely troublesome age. You worry about little things, can’t pinpoint where you are in any objective way, become really proficient at strange, pointless skills, and are held in thrall by inexplicable complexes.” (I’m reading this five years too late.)

But overall I was sorely disappointed in the writing itself. I want to ask: could it be the translation? The very best writing (I thought) was a reprint that he includes in the middle of the book of a previously published article describing the Athens-Marathon run. Having spent time in Cambridge, MA, I felt an emotional connection with his description of running along the Charles River – but would it have been the same if I hadn’t been there?

If nothing else, I took away a valuable mantra, not just for running but for life: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” With that in the book’s Foreward, it is then surprising that Murakami spends a lot of time and ink bemoaning his advancing age and the natural physical deterioration that comes with it. While he describes this as a memoir, it is really his training journal filled in with some reminiscences. It felt to me as if he were writing to exorcise his own demons and to recapture his previous love of running.

If you’re not a runner, this book is not likely to inspire you to want to become one. And if you are a reader, this book is not likely to inspire you to want to read more by this author except possibly to find out if there is a different quality to his fiction writing.

So what do you think about negative reviews: do they have a place here or elsewhere?


  1. I have read and enjoyed some of his fiction, so I wouldn't have guessed he'd write such a boring runner's journal. I appreciate the negative review - I won't waste my time on it.

  2. I respect our bloggers and their opinions. Charlotte's right: a negative review can save us time.