I’ll confess to this: the first time I read this I couldn’t forgive Murakami for making me read a book that had a cover blurb on the back from Sports Illustrated.
This time around, I came to terms with it a little better, and started to appreciate more what he was trying to do with it. The title makes it plain: he’s using running as a way of talking about other things, by noticing that talking about running in his life necessitates talking about other things.
What are those other things? Getting older is a big theme: most of the details he gives about his marathon training have to do with preparing, in his mid-‘50s, for another stab at the NYC Marathon, and confronting the fact that times he used to take for granted are now all but unattainable. Writing is of course another theme: he famously took up running to increase his stamina so he could write more and better, and so running comes to be kind of a metaphor for regular effort at writing. Not even a metaphor, since he usually comes right out and makes the connections; but knowing that two years after this he came out with 1Q84 makes me wonder now if all this talk of marathons and triathlons, one last push, was his way of saying he was working up to his longest literary performance (to date).
But what I felt he was most addressing in this book was individualism. He takes great care to make sure the reader doesn’t feel this is a health and fitness book – he’s not out to preach the benefits of running, or even of staying in shape, although he’s not shy about noticing them in his own life. Instead he puts the emphasis on how running fits his life, his personality – how its solitary, mostly noncompetitive nature suits him, how it parallels the career choice he made in mid-life, and how the constant self-attention that training requires is a lot like the constant mining in the mind and heart that his particular kind of fiction requires. I’m starting to think of this as Murakami’s version of Sōseki’s famous speech “My Individualism.” Like Sōseki, Murakami is a deeply humanistic writer who pays careful attention to society, but he does that from a place of zealously guarded and exultant individuality: his biggest concern is being fully himself, with the faith that by doing so he can best contribute to society.
I’m still a little puzzled as to why, out of all the scads of nonfiction books Murakami’s written over the years, this is the one that first appears in English (not counting Underground). He does insist that it’s kind of different, more polished, more focused, more of a memoir. Was it his choice to make this available to his international audience? Or did an editor at Knopf decide that the running angle would appeal to his international audience more than, say, his writings on whiskey or jazz?