Running commentary

Thirty years ago, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club in Tokyo. It was a tiny place. During the day he served coffee, and at night the club became a bar. Murakami closed up himself, arriving home as the yolky sun was rising in the sky. It had never occurred to him to do anything else, let alone write fiction. And then it did.

This charming, sober little book tells the story of how, shortly after Murakami embarked on a career as a novelist, he was blindsided by an even unlikelier idea: to go for a run. One can understand his surprise. At the time, he was smoking 60 cigarettes a day. He had never been an athlete. But he was a solitary person, and before long he was hooked.

Runners will find a kindred soul on these pages. Here is everyman, hitting the pavement, falling into that peculiar mental void which opens up on a long jog. He endures the indignities of the sport, too.

Completing his first marathon in Greece in midsummer, his sweat dries so fast it leaves behind smears of salt. "When I lick my lips," he writes, "they taste like anchovy paste."

Since that race, Murakami has run a marathon every year without fail. "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" skips around these races, circuitously filling out Murakami's thoughts on running as it links to writing -- the two habits becoming a feedback loop. In this sense, the book provides a fascinating portrait of Murakami's working mind and how he works his magic on the page.

Since the 1990s, with novels ("Dance Dance Dance" 1995, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" 1998) and stories ("The Elephant Vanishes" 1994) he has been one of the world's most vibrant, spontaneous storytellers -- a modern day Kafka. Apparently, though, there is no magic to what he does. "Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor," Murakami writes. "I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity."

This droll little book reminds how he has pounded at that bedrock, one mile at a time.