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May 13, 2016

Reading : Keeping Pace

Iceland. August 2015

During the second year of medical school, we take what we're told is the most important exam of our training: the first step of the Boards.  It plays a big role in the type of medicine you can do, and where you will train for that type of medicine.  So students spend anywhere from a month to six weeks doing nothing but studying for the exam.

I went home to Fremont, California to study for my test.  I woke up early each morning, had a small breakfast, studied until lunch, ate lunch, studied until dinner, ate dinner, and studied until bedtime, then read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and went to sleep.  

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is 607 pages long, and it got me through my six weeks of studying science. Studying can be a very isolating activity, and it can feel like real life is seeping slowly from your pores as your brain tries to make room for facts and objectivity.  Reading fiction helped remind me that a lot of things aren't set in stone, that many things can't be linearly evaluated--which is easy to forget when you're devoting your waking life to achieving a numerical score of measurement.

Plus, all sorts of fantastical things happen in the book without anyone questioning the realistic basis for their occurrence. After spending a day of memorizing rules and patterns, at night it felt good to read and just be immersed in a more fluid world without reproducible structure.

Now, I'm trying to get myself into actual training for my first marathon and I'm listening to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on audio during all my longer runs.  Given that the book on audio is 21 hours long, I'm pretty sure that it'll last me through three months of training.

For anyone who's trying to listen to an audiobook for the first time, I definitely recommend listening to something you know you love, a story you know well.  That way you're not worried about losing track of what's going on (since most of us haven't grown up tuning ourselves to oral narratives), and you are less likely to antsy about finding out what happens (since listening takes so much longer than reading).

The length and steady rhythm of this book makes it the ideal companion to long endeavors, whether it's marathon studying or running.  Murakami is slow and deliberate with every detail, both with factual information like what someone is eating or wearing and with the abstractions of feeling and perception. Cruising through the pages and the minutes of the book, I feel like I'm in a car driving along staring out, and it's for the endless meditative capacity to absorb that road trips are one of my favorite things in the world.

South Island, New Zealand

When I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in medical school, I was a maybe a third of the way through his books and so I was just starting to pick up on recurring motifs and themes.  During a somewhat defining (if boring) point in your training like taking the board exam, it was important to me to consider each part of my life as a part of a larger whole.  To see that different elements are revisited and built upon.  Seeing your life as a continuing string makes it easier to maintain stamina, and enjoy progressing along it.


Monterey, California

By now I've read all 16 of Murakami's novels and short story collections that have been translated into English, so all the themes feel familiar.  Of course the well-known cats, lonely male narrators, love of baseball and jazz, references to Western culture.  Also the water and wells, the description of ears and moles, six-fingered hands, describing objects as smelling like sun, the idea of entrances and exits, stating exactly how many minutes a pause in conversation lasts.

Listening to this book on audio has been reflective, both because I've read it before and because now I've read everything else by him. Even as I'm doing something new while I'm listening--trying to teach my body to eventually run 26 miles--I recognize this pace.  I remember setting myself to a rhythm in my life, with the forward beat of this story as a guide.  I remember appreciating the ability to move, to keep myself in motion.

Sometimes when something in my life dips into erratic chaos, like when I have five patients waiting in the clinic at once and the pace of seeing them becomes a choppy current, I try to channel this rhythm.  Keeping pace with the flow of a story, bound in the form of a book but with a reach that diffuses into so much that I do.  It's a simple, amazing way that a book can become a metronome for me, pulling me back into a recognizable pattern that helps me push through the overwhelming and the sluggish.

That's all to say that if you find yourself stuck, try reading a really good, really long book.  Or listening to one.

6 comments :

  1. Love your reflections on this, Kim! Murakami sometimes analogizes his purpose to music- you've added a new meaning to that. :) I never thought of listening to his works on audio btw - excited to try a new way to explore/enjoy the magic!

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    1. Not purpose, but I think I meant writing there :)

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    2. Both make sense! Yeah, listening is a really different experience. I'm not the biggest fan of some of the voices for the characters in Wind Up, but overall like you said another way of being immersed in the amazingness of his writing/story :)

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  2. I can connect with your description of studying for boards and how isolating it is. Thank you for introducing me to audiobooks! I think my books are a little more low brow but I can relate to rhythm and pattern of the story and even the reader's voice! It got me through my studying. :)

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  3. I think I told you this when I finished my last series but I felt like I lost a good friend when the books were done. On really hard days at work, I would redownload the books just to hear the familiar story again. Whenever I get back into running, I'll try this!

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    1. I totally know what you mean! And I don't think your reading is low brow! I listened to the second Louise Penny book while running too :) I think audiobooks have helped me branch out my interests more, into mystery/non-fiction/etc. Thanks for expanding my reading realm!

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