and now for something completely different

some months ago, i wrote a small blogpost wondering about the surprising lack of books which focus on the experience of cycling, running and whatnot. it is a theme that i revisited while writing for ET about the mumbai marathon.

Gather all books ever written on running and you will have enough to pave a running track. Most of these books evangelise running, extolling its health benefits. Yet others focus on technique. Another large chunk will be biographical narratives by athletes and amateurs alike. Books on the experience of running itself are few and far between. Which is pretty puzzling. What first attracts and then binds us to running is the experience of running itself. And yet, books examining that experience of running are the hardest to find. This seems to be true for any activity you care to name — cycling, motorbiking, cricket, whatever. Books on the experience itself are rare.

With that prologue, here are the best books I have read on running till now.

1. Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This is a pretty well-known book and chances are runners will already be very familiar with it.

2. The Lure of Long Distances. If  you liked Murakami, you might want to try Robin Harvie’s account of the months he spent training for the oldest and longest footrace on the Earth — the Spartathlon from Athens to Sparta. The book is remarkable. In part because its exposition on something no one who exercises is a stranger to — pain and discomfort. And in part because it touches one big reason why people run — to see just what our mind:body complexes are capable of.

3. Ultramarathon. This journey into the self is one that James Shapiro is very familiar with. His cult classic, Ultramarathon, is now out of print. But you can get second hand copies off online book stores. He again focuses on the seeming madness which makes someone want to run 24 hours, as Shapiro does, at an event to gauge just how far humans can run in a day. The book starts with an account of that day. He has also written Meditations From The Breakdown Lane, an account of running across America.

4. Once a runner. And then, there is fiction. Quenton Cassidy is a competitive runner at an American university whose dream is to run a four-minute mile. He is a second away from getting there when he is suspended from the team for participating in an antiwar protest (the book is set in the Vietnam war era). With that foundation, the rest of the story was always going to be a predictable take of triumph against the odds. Under the tutelage of a former Olympic Gold medallist, Cassidy gives up his scholarship, his girlfriend, withdraws to the countryside and eventually prevails. But the descriptions of training, of running, are vivid indeed.

5. Flanagan’s Run. A mythical account of a transamerica run during the years of the great depression.

6. Feet in the clouds. As the book jacket says, fell-running is probably britain’s most obscure sport. It features a set of maniacs who run up and down hills (or, the fells). As in The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith too is chasing a holy grail — he wants to complete the Bob Graham Round — a nonstop circuit of 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks, all to be completed within 24 hours. Much of the book is about his initiation into fell-running, his preparation, and the legends of fell-running — Like Joss Naylor.

‘If you stop now, said a voice in my head, you will never, ever stand the remotest chance of finishing the BG. All your training will have been wasted. All those years of obsession will have been so much self-deception. Stop now and you might as well call off the attempt and save wasting everyone’s time. Never mind all the training you already have in the bank, or all the training that you’re still planning to do. This is the only moment that matters. Fail now, and you will always fail. Stick to it, and — well, you won’t necessarily succeed, but you will be in with a chance. Sticking with this is the basic, entry-level qualification.”

Got any suggestions on other books to read? Write in.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.”

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,”

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society