Running with Murakami

Three months ago, I made the mistake of picking up a towel. As I reached down, I felt a sharp pang in my leg and, lo and behold, my patella once again partially dislocated. I’m usually engaged in some form of physical activity when my knee feels like taking a trip from home. This time, however, there was no tackle or tumble. There was no fight or fall. The culprit was a towel.

The doctor gave me the bog-standard pills and said I had to attend physio. I asked if I could skip physio and go straight under the knife. No, she said. Am I going to have to run? Yes, she said.

I was an utterly uninspired jogger. I used to put on shoddy tracksuit bottoms, perform a couple of pointless stretches, give up and watch six episodes of Scrubs. Not today, I told myself. The next day, once again dressed in dishevelled running gear, I watched six more episodes of Scrubs. Not today.

I had to get inspired. I had to want to run. I asked successful runners for advice and a couple of friends told me to read a book. It seemed like strange advice, but it was worth a try. The next day I bought Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

I was still unable to run because my knee felt unstable, so I was preparing under the tutelage of Murakami: ‘I went to a sports store and purchased running gear and shoes that suited my purpose. I bought a stopwatch, too, and read a beginners’ guide on running. This is how you become a runner.’ The first thing I did, therefore, was buy the proper gear.

According to Murakami, I was now a runner. This is easy, I thought. The book was captivating – especially for a budding writer – and, ostensibly, all I had to do was buy running gear. I found myself waiting for parcels to arrive, excitedly trying on different outfits. My brother said I looked like an out-of-shape hobo, but I thought I looked good. Looking the part, according to Murakami, is important.

Murakami suggests running with music. I therefore devised a playlist. I copied a couple of Murakami’s suggestions – the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Beck, Gorillaz – and added a few tracks from Murakami’s novels – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel. I supplemented the playlist with a couple of my favourites – mainly the Wu-Tang Clan.

My running gear was ready, my playlist was appropriately Murakami-esque with a hint of the Wu and my patella was safely in its reluctant home. I was ready to run. I wanted to run.

My first ran started to the sound of Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). My legs started to hurt after five hundred metres. After a kilometre, I was in agony. I tried to remember my training. Murakami said I was feeling pain, but not suffering. It certainly felt like I was suffering.

My first run was a personal worst: 2km. I took off my running gear, settled on the sofa and watched Scrubs, disheartened.

The next day, I missed a run, but intent on continuing, I re-read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami never missed a run two days in a row. The following day, therefore, I had to run. I threw together my gear, put on C.R.E.A.M – the perfect running song – and hit the streets. 3km. There was less pain and more enthusiasm. No suffering.

A good run, according to Murakami, is contagious. Two days later, I ran 3km again. No suffering. With each run I was advancing. I started to follow some of Murakami’s more enigmatic advice. I practiced speeches while running. I listened to the rhythm of my feet. I even pretended I was surrounded by a crowd, urging me forward. Two weeks later, I was running 4km.

A month has passed since I first read Murakami. I’m running frequently now and the prospect of the run has become less daunting. There are annotations all over my copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and little post-it notes on inspirational pages. I turn to the book in times of need – when the ‘running blues’ strikes and Scrubs beckons.

The next step, as per my mentor’s advice, is signing up for a race. I have my eyes set on the Vitality London 10k. It’s hardly Murakami’s 62-mile ultramarathon, but it’s a start. I need to continue this momentum.

Everyone needs a reason to run. Some find it easily – hastened by the pursuit of health or the reduction of stress – while others have to read and reread running tracts by their favourite authors. Murakami gives me a reason. It might seem romantic, but it’s true. I had to run – to help strengthen the muscles around my patella – but I didn’t enjoy running. I do enjoy, however, running with Murakami.

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Why We Need to Fight to Save Britain’s Libraries

I am a voluntary recluse. People don’t mind spending time with me – so I’m told – but I dislike spending time with people. I reluctantly socialise on occasion – society demands such a sacrifice – but I prefer solitude. I need an escape. I need time away from the formality of small talk and the commotion of conversation. I need to be alone with my thoughts or, preferably, the thoughts of my favourite writers.

We recluses seek solitude in strange places. The park is nice on rare sunny afternoons, but there is a shocking lack of public toilets and the perpetuity of bush-pissing makes for a daunting experience. Coffee shops are tolerable if one can withstand the din of needless gossip and the horror of overhearing an awkward first date. Pubs also provide solitude, but the risk of the drunkards approach is a constant fear for the inept recluse.

The public library, however, is the recluse’s ideal habitat. The library is a strange and mysterious place. It is full of buzz yet silent. One is surrounded by crowds yet feels perfectly alone. It serves the community yet paradoxically allows one to avoid the community.

The recluses’ utopia.

Unlike the outside world, there is no judgment in the library. There is no dress code: the hobo and the aristocrat are equals. There is no pomp or pageantry. All are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re an eight-year-old reading Ulysses or an eighty-year-old reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It is each person alone with their thoughts in solidarity with others alone with their thoughts. There exists a code, a comradery, a fellowship among us library-dwelling folk. The library is, in many ways, a recluse’s utopia.

And that utopia is under attack. Budget cuts over the last few years have led to library closures across the UK. Plenty more libraries face a similar fate. According to the Voices for the Library campaign, over 10% of Britain’s libraries are currently under threat. 500 out of a total public library provision of just over 4500 face closure. That means thousands of self-loathing recluses such as myself abandoned, forced to accept our existence in parks and pubs. We are losing our natural habitat.

Fighting back is an almost insurmountable feat for the recluse. It means conversing, arguing, maybe even going out in public and voicing our opinion. To save our natural habitat, therefore, we recluses have to enter enemy ground: the outside world.

Plenty of folks are already fighting on our behalf. Ian Rankin, for example, campaigned to prevent the closure of 16 libraries in Fife. He said the library provided ‘refuge and a place of constant wonder’ when he was growing up. I know the feeling. When Sydenham Library faced closure in 2011, writer Baroness Mary Warnock said the shutting of her local library amounts to ‘barbarism’.

Zadie Smith, fighting to save Kensal Rise Library, said ‘I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library.’ Smith wasn’t alone in the campaign to save Kendal Rise – a library opened by Mark Twain. She was joined by Nick Cave, Alan Bennett, the Pet Shop Boys, an entire community and, of course, a few of my fellow recluses.

The fight to save our libraries is particularly important for younger generations – those kids seeking an escape to read Huckleberry Finn in peace. Surely, these kids have the same right that I was once afforded. They too deserve an escape. They too deserve the sort of peace that kept my sanity in check. Like Rankin, they too deserve a place of refuge and constant wonder.

Last Saturday, the UK celebrated National Library Day. National Library Day was an opportunity to raise awareness and help to protect the natural habitat of strange, reclusive creatures such as myself and to ensure that every kid has the same opportunities that I once had: to hide away from the outside world. It received little attention. Perhaps that’s because there was little to celebrate, as closures are hardly worth celebration.

Every Briton needs an escape. Some find it on nightclub floors. Others find it amongst the foliage and greenery of public parks. For recluses, the library is our escape. It’s our home. It’s where we feel comfortable. It is as close to a utopia as we have ever found and we will always, albeit reluctantly, fight for that utopia.

David Bowie’s Bookshelf

A person’s bookshelf will reveal everything you need to know about them. Discovering an individual’s favourite books offers an insight into their thoughts, motivations and influences. My nostalgic reaction to David Bowie’s death, therefore, wasn’t to binge listen to his records. I didn’t prepare popcorn and watch Labyrinth. Instead, I revisited an article from 2013, which listed Bowie’s top 100 must-read books.

Bowie’s favourite books reveal a great deal about his character and, indeed, his creative process. The list mentions obscure works that have become paradoxically mainstream -reminding us of Bowie. The choices are cultish, irreverent and brimming with heterodox. The theme of identity pervades throughout – utterly unsurprising, as the man in question perpetually toyed with the notion of identity, constantly reinventing himself in the process.

An obvious place to start – if only for Bowie’s influence on the book’s subject – is Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945. This work explores youth subcultures across the world, building on Dick Hebdige’s Subculture and the Meaning of Style. Teenage explores the various movements – political, cultural and social – that have attracted young people longing for an outlet. This sense of identifying with a movement is a pivotal theme in Bowie’s list of books – particularly his fictional choices.

For example, On the Road – the seminal work of the Beatnik subculture – explores one man’s attempt to find something inviolable in an otherwise vapid America. Richard Wright’s Black Boy examines themes of racial identity – exploring Wright’s eventual move towards the American Communist Party. These works concern personal identity and the individual’s move towards a collective cultural and political home. This notion of identity clearly influenced Bowie and Bowie, in turn, influenced the notion of identity.

Bowie chooses historical works that challenge the status quo. This, again, seems typical of Bowie – an artist constantly questioning the mainstream. In A People’s History of the United States, for example, Howard Zinn essentially rewrites American history from the viewpoint of working people. Zinn destroys popular historical myths – beginning with a scathing condemnation of Christopher Columbus – and offers an entirely different perspective from mainstream historical thought. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger is a polemical work that questions the popular understanding of Kissinger, an American Nobel Prize winner. Hitchens unyieldingly attacks Kissinger, citing his brutality and his hunger for war. These books changed history or, rather, gave us a more accurate, less apologetic version of history. Like Bowie, Zinn and Hitchens were unforgiving and uncompromising.

Among Bowie’s other choices are great and challenging novels that have seeped into the mainstream despite the mainstream. Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, takes its place on Bowie’s bookshelf. One can imagine Bowie, as uncomfortable as any reader ofLolita, perusing the explicit, perverse fantasies of Humbert Humbert. George Orwell is one of the few authors to feature twice on Bowie’s list. 1984, of course, makes the cut, but Bowie also lists Orwell’s essays. Any fan of Orwell will rejoice in this inclusion, as his essays are arguably his greatest works – particularly, for me, The Lion and the Unicorn, Books v Cigarettes and Inside the Whale. Mikhail Bulgakaov’s The Master and Margarita and Saul Bellow’s Herzog also make the list. These works were accepted by the literary mainstream despite their rejection of the mainstream. Their success, therefore, somewhat resembles the success of Bowie.

booksI haven’t read all the books on Bowie’s list – luckily there is plenty more for me to learn – but those I’ve read seem to represent the man. The list includes books that deal with a sense of belonging and notions of identity. The non-fiction, and indeed some of the fiction, challenges dominant, hegemonic perceptions and invites us to look at the world in new ways. The books are innovative, challenging and beautiful. They are uncompromising and refuse to kowtow to popular constructs, structures or ideas. They are mainstream precisely because they rejected the mainstream. They are brutal and authentic, honest and brave. Perhaps most importantly, and in this sense they resemble Bowie most of all, the books on this list are scathingly original.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Frank O’ Hara, the only writer whose selected poems made the list. On the day following David Bowie’s death, this quote seems appropriate and perhaps best sums up the man: ‘Grace to be born and live as variously as possible’.