A Guide to Reading Haruki Murakami

Hey. ‘Tis I, your self-appointed Murakami expert, here to offer advice on how to start (or continue) reading him.

Sadly, I haven’t read all of his books, but I have read (in chronological order) Norwegian Wood, 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, After the Quakeand Killing Commendatore. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Murakami, be warned: his work is very trippy. Also, every single one of his novels has at least one creepy and awful sex scene, but alas, it’s inevitable. Embrace it.

I’m going to give you brief descriptions of each novel before suggesting what order to read them in. I’ll try to give you a sense of the themes/elements of the book rather than the plot because reading Murakami without knowing what the book is about makes the experience 20 times better. Also…many Murakami novels don’t really have a standard “plot,” which you’ll understand once you read him.

“Realistic” Works:

  • Norwegian Wood

A coming-of-age story about Toru Watanabe, a freshman at a Tokyo college, who struggles to cope with his feelings for a girl whose mental health is swiftly deteriorating in the wake of a mutual friend’s tragic death.

This is a beautiful and tragic love story that explores themes of sexuality, mourning, and death. It’s the most “readable” Murakami, which is why it’s very well-known, but Murakami himself questions its fame since it’s not very representative of his typical style.

  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

A man struggles to navigate adulthood after being rejected by his four best childhood friends. Read for themes of friendship, love, and loss, or if you like books that make you introspect quite a bit.

  • Killing Commendatore

A painter moves to the former home of one of Japan’s most eminent painters. Weird events start to unfold.

An unnecessarily long yet very readable homage to The Great Gatsby, laden with references to Alice In Wonderland, Don Giovanni, and Bluebeard’s Castle. Slightly more “plotty” than Murakami’s other surrealist works, so I’d say this one bridges the boundary between Murakami’s realist and surrealist works.

Surrealist Novels aka The Good Stuff:

These works all thoroughly explore the subconscious, memories, dreams, and nostalgia.

  • 1Q84

Love. Intertwining narratives. Parallel realities. Religious cults. Dystopia (in case you couldn’t tell by the title..)

Along with Wind-Up Bird, this is my favorite Murakami. I still can’t get over how good it is…

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Toru Okada searches for a missing cat…and then for his wife.

Lots of World War 2 references in here. Arguably his best (and most complex) work.

(Isn’t the cover gorgeous???)

  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

“Unclose your mind. You are not a prisoner. You are a bird in fight, searching the skies for dreams.”

Check out the Goodreads summary for a glimpse of how complex this book is.

I’ll be honest—this is my least favorite Murakami. I couldn’t get my head around all the elements at work in this novel, and while I appreciated its allusions to Kafka and Orwell, I struggled to connect emotionally with any of its characters. All the same, lots of Murakami readers think this book is pure genius, so it’s worth a try if you’re interested in exploring the intricacies of the mind/the subconscious.

  • Kafka on the Shore

Kafka Tamura runs away from home to escape a prophecy and encounters a cast of very interesting characters who shape his destiny in complex ways…or do they? Read for talking cats, prostitutes who quote Hegel, rainstorms of fish, and a truly stunning blend of magical realism and metaphysics with everyday life.

I read this in a day, more or less. Trust me, it’s really, really good.


As for the order to read him in, I’ll create three “tracks.” Choose the one that fits you best.

Track 1: You want to try reading Murakami and see if you like his works/you’re not too keen on devouring each and every one of his novels

Track 2: You’re willing to read Murakami’s best works/even if you have a not-so-great experience with one book, you’re willing to try another

Track 3: You’re set on becoming the next Murakami aficionado/you’ve read Murakami before, like him, and want to try some of his other works

Aight.

Track 1:

Norwegian Wood → 1Q84/The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle → Kafka On the Shore

Note: 1Q84 is really long, so you might be better off coming back to it later. If you like Wind-Up Bird, definitely read Kafka On the Shore…but be prepared for a lot of awkward sex.

Track 2:

Norwegian Wood → (if the premise interests you) Hard-Boiled → 1Q84 →  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle → Kafka On the Shore → Killing Commendatore

Track 3:

murakamiguide(Yes, I made a very questionable graphic for this)

Hello, aspiring Murakami expert. I am here for you.

If you haven’t read Norwegian Wood already, start there to familiarize yourself with Murakami. From there, you can try Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki for some familiar themes and a somewhat similar protagonist, or you could skip to Hard-Boiled for something completely different. From there, try 1Q84, but if it’s too hefty and you can’t get into it, try The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

If you’ve read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, you can try reading Killing Commendatore next. There are a lot of similar elements/allusions (e.g. to World War 2). Killing Commendatore is definitely a great bridge between Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because it contains similar themes to both novels. However, after finishing it, I can only see it as a less satisfying, less complex jumble of the best elements of Kafka and Wind-Up Bird. Read it either as a prelude to either novel or not at all.

Hope this helps!

Five Best Books of 2018

Before I get into what I’m reading this year, I’d like to talk about my favorite reads of 2018. I haven’t included Ready Player One or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in this list because I’ve talked about the former already and the latter merits its own post.

Choosing only five books out of 148 was pretty agonizing, but here goes!

1. The Goldfinch

This Pulitzer Prize-winning bildungsroman details the life of Theodore Decker, who survives a terrorist bombing at the Met as a 13-year-old. Although he loses his mother in the accident, he acquires a Dutch Golden Age painting, The Goldfinch, which comforts him and anchors him to reality as he navigates his turbulent life (emphasis on turbulent…it gets wild)

Oh man, this book was a RIDE. At 771 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve read since 1Q84 (which takes readers 27ish hours at 250 WPM. Wow.) The plot, while substantial, definitely does not require nearly 800 pages, but the beauty of the book is in the details. The prose is absolutely stunning—you know a book is incredible when you not only can picture images vividly, but can see them erupting before your eyes. I usually don’t read books on planes because they tend to make me feel even queasier, but this one—wow. It was immersive. I’m so glad I lugged it all the way to India…Also, PSA:  the movie, which stars Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort, releases on October 11 this year, so read it before then!

If you have read this book, tell me: how do you feel about Theo?? I’m curious.

  2. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters In the End

This book is truly sobering. As its title suggests, it offers insights about how we can shift our perspectives regarding illness, geriatric care, and death. And since all of us will encounter these at some point in our lives, this book is relevant to everyone. I’m fortunate enough to have elderly relatives who are all in good health, so the book’s deep discussion of age-related frailty was pretty shocking to me—the visuals of how our bodies deteriorate and decay as we age were…intense. Although terrifying, this book is nothing but informative, and Atul Gawande’s prose is incredible. I loved it so much that I immediately picked up The Checklist Manifesto, which is also by him (I unfortunately never finished it and restarted it recently, but still…)

3. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

As an ardent Freakonomics fan and a prospective Data Analytics major, I thought this book was fantastic. Several of the insights this book offers are pretty astonishing—especially those revealed by Google search trends regarding racism in America. The anecdotal analyses of data generated from scouring Wikipedia, Facebook (and even PornHub) are engaging and illuminating as well. I particularly enjoyed the third section, which elaborates on the Foucauldian implications of data science. Anyway, if you’re interested in finding out how sketchy everyone is IRL, this is definitely worth the read!

4. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

This novel is *ahem* absolutely remarkable. I devoured it in one sitting since I had been searching for a book like it ever since finishing Ready Player One. For a synopsis, all I can really say that it’s about a (very relatable) woman named April May who finds a giant robot in Manhattan. She films it, goes viral, and is sucked into a ton of crazy stuff as a result.

Read this!!!! It’s so worth it!!!

5. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

This book is BEAUTIFUL. Its premise is pretty straightforward—Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo opens up to reporter Monique Grant about her scandalous past—but it contains so many unexpected elements that will keep you hooked. It can be classified as historical fiction since it features the trials and tribulations of 1950s Hollywood, as well as the Stonewall Riots (!!!), but it really is timeless. It’s the perfect beach read since it’s not abstract or deep, but it is very compelling. I listened to this on Audible and was completely immersed, so if you’re looking for your next audiobook, try this one out!

Honorable Mentions:

A Blog of One’s Own…?

Hey! I started this blog because 1. reading is great and 2. I need an outlet for discussing the books I read before my memories of them fade into oblivion.

Last January, I picked up Ready Player One after hearing about its upcoming movie adaptation. An exhilarating four hours later, I was both desperately wishing the OASIS was real and wondering why I’d abruptly stopped pleasure-reading in middle school. High school English classes had instilled a vague desire to read classics “for the sake of being cultured!!” in me, but Ready Player One reminded me that there’s a world beyond reading just to convince yourself that you’re Smart™ and Literate™.

By December, I had read 148 books—some long (@The Goldfinch), some (very) short—but all fulfilling. When I tell people this, they’re very impressed, but when I mention that I only vaguely remember many of them, they’re like “weird flex but ok…” When you read that many books, though, it’s inevitable! Unless, of course, you write reflections instead of thinking “wow, that was good” and picking up the next book on your t h i c c stack.

So here we are! Hope you enjoy this blog 🙂