Will you please run faster, please?
A Contrary review by David M. Smith

We don't always approach reading as a test of endurance. It certainly doesn't take a lot of physical effort to read a book. We’re just sitting there, after all, and the only heavy lifting involved is done by six tiny ocular muscles, deftly flitting our eyeballs back and forth. 
But finishing a book can sometimes feel like no less a feat of endurance than running a marathon in 90-degree heat. I myself am not one who can zip through two or three books a week. I recently finished David Copperfield, and I was (of course) enormously gratified to have followed Dickens’ masterpiece to its conclusion. But my reading occurred in fits and starts over nearly two months, and there were some days when I looked forward to reading more Victorian prose as much as I would running a 5K at the crack of dawn. 
For those who share my situation, rest assured, this is nothing new: Samuel Johnson, despite being the most renowned literary scholar of his age, almost never had the patience to read books from start to finish, while it’s certainly arguable that Coleridge is most famous as a writer of unfinished works.
Reading, and its counterpart, writing, both place demands on us that are as strenuous as those faced by a long-distance runner, even if we never leave our chair for them. The sheer grit needed for all these activities is the focus of Haruki Murakami in his new memoir, What I Think About When I Think About Running. “Most people… only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study,” he observes. “If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel.”  
For Murakami, rather, the endurance and focus he acquires through long-distance running goes hand in hand with his chosen profession as a novelist. “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned from through running every day,” he writes. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life--and for me, for writing as well.”  Murakami goes on to mention Hemingway's famous advice to writers—to stop every day at the point where you could write a little bit more—and compares this to the necessary pacing every runner has to learn. 
Moreover, Murakami's skills as a novelist enable him to infuse dramatic tension into the monotonous activity of running. His description of an "ultramarathon" (62 miles) is priceless: “I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder…It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on…My muscles [were] as hard as week-old cafeteria bread.” Moments like these make What I Think About When I Think About Running an entertaining (if sometimes meandering) memoir where the life of the runner intersects with that of the writer. 
On the other hand, Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind (edited by Michael W. Austin) is a collection of essays where the connection alluded to in the title could have used a bit more development. Is running supposed to tell us something about philosophy, or is it philosophy that tells us something about running?  The contributors in Running and Philosophy don’t always seem quite sure, either.
For instance, Martha Nussbaum’s essay on the expression of emotions in music is interesting enough, but only manages a tenuous connection with the topic of running. She and many of the other contributors begin by telling us about their running habits (during which Nussbaum listens to music in her head), but such personal information is unfortunately a very slight and uninteresting detail when it comes to the thorny philosophical problems they then go on to propound.
Not that there’s nothing of interest here. I particularly liked Ross Reed's "Existential Running" which invokes Sartrean philosophy to interpret running as a moment of freedom and authenticity. But mostly, Running and Philosophy doesn't live up to its promise, as its treatment of the running side comes across as an afterthought. 
If brief autobiographical sketches form an uneasy contrast with the heavy-duty philosophizing in Running and Philosophy, Murakami combines running with his unique life philosophy in a largely coherent narrative. In fact, Murakami could be said to have developed quite a sophisticated philosophical account of running. Developing a running habit is one way to live a purposeful and ordered life, which could fall under the branch of philosophy called teleology. And what better way to give shape and definition to one's life than writing a memoir—or a memoir about running?

David M. Smith is an American writer who lives in Norway.

Index of Reviews...>Reviews.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami, 2008, Knopf

Running and Philosophy

Michael W. Austin, ed., 2007, Wiley-Blackwell

© 2008  |  all rights reserved

about us  |  xml feed  |  Contrary ® is a registered trademark of Contrary Magazine  |  donate $1  | contact us

COMMENTARY | POETRY | FICTION | CHICAGO         ARCHIVES | REVIEWS | ABOUT | SUBMISSIONS | ALERTS | BOOKSHOP | SUPPORT | CONTACT |Poectionary.htmlPoectionary.htmlPoectionary.htmlContact.htmlArchives.htmlReviews.htmlContrary.htmlSubmissions.htmlSubscriptions.htmlBookshop.htmlWritersFund.htmlContact.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0shapeimage_3_link_1shapeimage_3_link_2shapeimage_3_link_3shapeimage_3_link_4shapeimage_3_link_5shapeimage_3_link_6shapeimage_3_link_7shapeimage_3_link_8shapeimage_3_link_9shapeimage_3_link_10shapeimage_3_link_11