“When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages–a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.”
Murakami is one of the most popular and respected contemporary authors still writing. If you are interested in finding out why, but you don’t know where to start, and where to go after you first dig in, this post will break it down for you.
I teach literature and writing courses at the college level and always try to include one of Murakami’s novels or short stories into my syllabus. My reason is not necessarily about Murakami. My goal is always to help reignite my student’s passion for reading. As most of you know, reading any Murakami novel is an absolute joy, even if you feel wrecked by the end.
After one taste of Murakami’s novels, my students are hooked. After that first exposure, they almost always ask what to read next. And even though you can’t really go wrong, I will suggest what I think would work best for most readers. Each of his novels stand alone, but some work together quite well.
The novels I have listed below are grouped by a general style. These are what I like to read in the same general time frame because the reader gets a feel for the way Murakami’s worlds function. If you’d rather read Murakami’s novels in chronological order, you find that here.
The Best Haruki Murakami Books – Surrealism
These six books are my favorite works of Haruki Murakami and what I consider the best Murakami books because of the way they deal with the unconscious. In each work, the lives of the characters are completely altered because of dreams, memories, nostalgia, or other manifestations of the unconscious.
These stories remind the reader how powerful the mind is, and I’ve remained convinced of this since my first reading of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. That is part of why I suggest friends and students start with this novel. I have a few different reasons for suggesting others start with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Jacques Lacan says the unconscious is structured like a language, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call the unconscious a producer whose product is real. These theories are only a snapshot of the philosophies at work in Haruki Murakami’s novels. The five novels above, and his most recent book, Killing Commendatore, each explore the way Henri Bergson recognizes the unconscious influences conscious thought.
I never suggest readers start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I consider it the most complex and best novel Murakami has written. If readers are not used to his writing style and alternating narratives, it would be pretty challenging to adapt in such a dense text. If you are a reader who likes when authors take risks and switch up narrative styles, then beginning here should not bother you.
Keep in mind this is only a suggestion, but I recommend reading these 6 books in the following order:
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
- Kafka on the Shore
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
- After Dark
- Killing Commendatore
The Best Haruki Murakami Books – Realism
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I have listed below, places Murakami’s thoughts on the unconscious in real circumstances. I shared a recent interview with the Japan Times in which Murakami admits to this pursuit of the unconscious:
“When I write a novel, I place more importance on the subconscious world than the conscious world. The conscious world is the world of logic. What I’m pursuing is the world beneath logic.”
I have argued for this reading of his novels for almost a decade, so hearing him say it felt completely gratifying.
These next four books are powerful in their subtleties. They do not deviate completely from the unconscious explorations of the previously mentioned novels, but most of their narratives take place in what we call reality (in fiction).
I’ve taught through Norwegian Wood a few times and despite the awkward sex scenes, it sparks many insightful discussions. I actually don’t necessarily recommend reading these Murakami novels back to back, although you can. When reading his other works, pepper in these novels when you want a quicker, more grounded Murakami experience. These tend to read faster than the others, and they do not operate in the realm of fantasy.
- Norwegian Wood
- Sputnik Sweetheart
- South of the Border, West of the Sun
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
THE RAT TRILOGY + DANCE, DANCE, DANCE
The Best Haruki Murakami Book Series
Finally, the rat trilogy and Dance, Dance, Dance are the last novels to consider. Returning to these earlier novels is a treat because readers discover some of Haruki Murakami’s earliest writing motivations. Both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 leave bread crumbs of the themes and concepts that Murakami tries to hide throughout the rest of his writing.
Dance, Dance, Dance is a kind of sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase. I happened to read DDD first, and I don’t think you miss too much by not having read AWSC prior. Nonetheless, if I could go back and do it again, I’d read them in the following order:
- Hear the Wind Sing
- Pinball, 1973
- A Wild Sheep Chase
- Dance, Dance, Dance
HARUKI MURAKAMI SHORT STORIES
The Best Haruki Murakami Short Stories
So that brings us to his short story collections. I teach short fiction as well, and it’s my second favorite literary form. Murakami’s stories are some of the strangest I’ve read. I attended an event at Berkeley in 2008 where Murakami was interviewed and then read one of his short stories, “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” aloud. It was incredible. This story is in his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
Many of his shorter works get reworked in his novels. Sometimes it feels like his fictitious worlds bleed together, and it’s only a matter of time before they bleed into your own. Here is a short list of what I consider Haruki Murakami’s best short stories.
- The Elephant Vanishes
- Barn Burning
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- Birthday Girl
His short story, “The Strange Library,” was released as a graphic novel. After you read this, you’ll never look at libraries the same. And weird just doesn’t cut it anymore when you need to describe his work. Actually, that goes for all of his short stories.
You can read these in any order at all. Each story stands alone just like the collection it is a part of. If you consider the advice Murakami gives to new writers, you won’t be surprised by how engaging novel and short story is.
The Best Haruki Murakami Non-Fiction Books
Last, but not least, we have his nonfiction works. His book on running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is just as much about the craft of writing as it is about running. Some of his novels, like 1Q84 and Sputnik Sweetheart, work writing into the plot as well. After reading so much of him, the nonfiction is refreshing because we learn more about the man behind the madness.
In Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, you understand how deeply affected Japan was by the terrorist attacks through the eyes of some of the victims and members of the cult responsible for the gas attack.
Murakami has written a great deal more than this, but these are the main hitters published in English. And if you missed it, here is one of his short stories, Scheherazade, available from The New Yorker.
Happy reading! And if you have a minute, I’d love to hear your Murakami reading experience, whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. If you’d like to read one of Haruki Murakami’s short stories or essays available online, you can find a list of Murakami resources here.