Low stakes, magical drama

I recently finished Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami. It’s a bittersweet, melancholic story of an unrequited love triangle with a touch of magic. During my trip to Peru I found both the downtime and discipline to be a better reader. I’ve started a habit of reading 15 minutes every morning (and saying it out loud here will make me feel terribly guilty if I stop).

With this new habit I was able to maintain my vacation reading momentum and dig through the remainder of the book, a chapter a day, until I reached the bittersweet and magical conclusion.

I finished another Murakami book as well, Novelist As A Vocation, a collection of essays and musings on what it means to be a writer as your job.

Prior, it took me nearly a year to complete Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World and way too long to finish the collection of short stories First Person Singular. Now, I’m on to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and losing myself in it.

Not long ago, I lamented to a colleague that I have become a poor reader. Or actually, just not the kind of reader I want to be. Taking a calendar year to finish a book is embarrassing. Not that I don’t read, I read all the time. Documentation, newsletters and articles, client briefs, SOWs, a million social media posts. But I wasn’t doing that long-form reading that’s so good for the brain. I couldn’t focus. I’d find a little time to read in fits and spurts.

If I tried to read on an electronic device, I would invariably read something interesting or thought provoking, then swipe over to the internet to look up something and then my focus was lost. As much as I like the idea of electronic books, I find it too easy to bounce out and get distracted. (I’ve not tried a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, but I don’t think I want yet another device.)

Traveling and stopping time for a moment allowed me to change my game. I set a daily reminder to read for 15 minutes. The reminder blips on my phone at 6am and annoys me until I do something about it. Morning is best for reading because I wake with the chickens to feed the poodle and wash the dishes. So why not sit with my coffee for 15 minutes and read. On a good day I can finish a chapter. On a bad day I still make progress. It feels like an accomplishment.

Now, on my 5th Murakami book, and ready for my 6th, I think I can say I’m a fan. Murakami’s stories have a very interesting scale to them. They are small and personal. The events that happen, even if they are fantastical, fit into a shoebox. I think he captures the big drama found in the little moments of life. Think about the last time you got into an argument or developed a crush on someone. Those feelings are so big, and the world is just the same. That tension is where Murakami plays and I love it.

Murakami is an interesting character in himself. In Novelist as a Vocation he tells the story of marrying then leaving college (doing things in the wrong order) and then opening a jazz café. In Japan there are special coffee shops where the owner puts their prodigious record collection to use on a giant stereo system. (vinyl records, rarely CDs, never digital). The idea is you go to this place to have a coffee or a beer and a snack and listen to whatever is on the record player. No, you don’t get to make suggestions. Is there live music? Maybe? Sometimes? That’s not the point though.

Murakami opened his jazz café in Tokyo by borrowing money from friends and family. He and his wife ran the place, paid back their loans, paid their bills, and made a life. He also avoided the crushing corporate rat race of Tokyo in the 1980s.

Running a café means keeping odd hours, so one afternoon before the café opened he takes in a baseball game. The “stands” out behind the outfield are just a grassy hill. Murakami recalls sitting on the grass in the sunshine with a cold beer, watching the game. Then, like catching a pop-fly, just decides to write a book. And then he goes home and just does it. That’s like me telling you that I’m going to become Superman this afternoon and living up to the promise.

He writes openly about how his first attempts at writing were failures: failure to find a voice, failure to make anything he felt good about. In an interesting twist of logic, he chose to write in English for a few chapters. This reframing of the problem through another language helps him to find his voice. Before becoming an internationally best-selling author Murakami worked translating works in English to Japanese. I find it fascinating that he doesn’t translate his own works, instead having close relationships to two or three translators.

Finding Murakami, finding time, and learning how to make time, I’ve read more in a month than I did last year.

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