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Book reviews

01 January 2019, 8am

Running is life; life is running

by Peter McLean


‘The joy of running as meditation and mastering the art of enduring and overcoming pain as a metaphor for life’

The British newspaper The Guardian used to have an excellent weekly magazine called ‘The Editor’ which summarised the week’s news in the UK and around the world you never had time to read. It created small edible, bite sized and tasty chunks of news. It offered a 1,000-word review or a single paragraph review or a single line review or finally a one-word review.

The great Irish writer Oscar Wilde used to say: ‘A book is like a fine wine. One need not drink the whole cask to know its quality’.

He also said, when asked about a piece he wrote, ‘could you not have made it shorter?’. He replied, ‘I didn’t have enough time!’

The skill and beauty of concise summary – the précis – is an art. When trying to summarise a book it is best, I believe, to give a taste of its flavour. Not too much and not too little. Enough to give a taste of its flavour, to stimulate appetite and the desire to perhaps drink a little more.

I hope this summary is to your refined tastes and it enables you to get a small glimpse of Haruki Murakami’s genius.

If you feel it could have been shorter and more concise, you are right, I just didn’t have enough time!

Peter McLean

If you are pushed for time:

Here is a one paragraph review:

Life, philosophy, insight to a brilliant mind. Events, experiencing life to its full beauty. The joy of running as meditation and mastering the art of enduring and overcoming pain as a metaphor for life.

Or one-line review:

An insight into some of life’s most important questions through the beauty of running.

Or one-word review:


Or the less than 900-word review:

Haruki Murakami is one of, if not the greatest writer(s) in the history of Japan. He owned a jazz bar then became a writer, a philosopher and a runner. His books offers insight into the emotional areas of the human mind. They make you ask questions about yourself, others, feelings, the world and why we are here.

In Murakami’s excellent book ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, he looks at life and meaning, and illustrates his thoughts through the art of well composed words that touch emotions and bring meaning. His thoughts resonate with millions, if not us all, as they ask deep questions and touch deeper emotions, expressions and human vulnerabilities. He does this through a special human kaleidoscope of colours that are his thoughts and through a special space or ‘void’ as he calls it, that is created for those thoughts while he is running.

Running is a form of deep therapy for Murakami. He talks about the changing of the seasons and being in a group of people in a marathon: ‘In the midst of this flow. I am aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature. I’m just a replaceable natural phenomenon like water in the river that flows under the bridge and into the sea.’

He frequently ponders about life and its purpose, if it has one: ‘I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are’.

He looks at the marathon as a metaphor and lesson for life, when he says ‘pain is inevitable: Suffering is optional, the hurt part is an unavoidable reality, that whether you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important part of marathon running.’ And life.

Isolation, alone with the beauty and serenity of an open calm mind, that has space to let new and creative colourful thought come in, is a wonderful thing. Although the great psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his masterpiece book ‘Escape from freedom’ that he believed most people did not want to be alone with their deepest thoughts, that reality, fear and the enormity of life’s unanswered questions can be a very scary place and most of us will fill our lives with almost any and every activity to avoid it.

I think that marathon runners can be different, they find peace in the solitude of the road and the wind. In that space they are free. To have nothing urgent to do in that moment and all day to do it. Murakami explains: ‘I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a fine point on it. I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone’.

‘I run in a void or maybe I should put it the other way. I run to acquire a void’.

‘The thoughts that occur while I am running are like clouds in the sky, clouds of all different sizes. They come, and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time it doesn’t. And we merely accept the vast experience and drink it all in’.

Murakami says: ‘I don’t care about the time I run. Competing against time isn’t important… much more meaningful is how much I can enjoy myself, whether I can finish 26 miles with a feeling of contentment… enjoying things that cannot be expressed in numbers’.

‘Distance running suits my personality, though, and of all my habits I have acquired over my lifetime I’d have to say this one has been the most helpful and meaningful. Running without a break for the last two decades has made me stronger both physically and mentally’.

So, this book is about life, and running is one of the ways many of us choose to spend it.

Murakami beautifully describes running in Boston, running Athens. The authentic marathon course with all its over 2,500 years of history. How special New York is and its marathon. The beauty of running in Japan and much more.

The joy of running to travel and to travel to run.

The beauty of isolation but also community that I guess we all need at different times in our lives. The delight of all the experiences and people we meet that by traveling to run a race brings.

Life is a marathon. Set your own pace. As the great writer Henry David Thoreau once said: ‘Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such different enterprises? If a man cannot keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the pace of the music he hears, regardless of how measured or far away.’

  • What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami published by Random House

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