6 Murakami Books You Need To Read Right Now

Every year, a vast number of readers feel left out when the Nobel Prize is awarded to an author whose work they’ve never read. One day, inevitably, Haruki Murakami will win. So, if you haven't yet gotten into his books yet, you ought to start now — not least because they are perfect for anyone who loves cats, alcohol, eating carbs, or unsolved mysteries. (Which is to say, anyone on the internet.) And, there’s a perfect opportunity to catch up with his new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage coming out this month.
Murakami has written a ton of books — which you could spend the rest of the year reading (and you probably should). But, there are so many that it’s hard to know where to start — and some of them are phone-book sized. (Fair warning: Some among us who started his last novel, 1Q84, have yet to find the energy to finish it.) Here’s where you should get started before moving on to his more challenging stuff.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Norwegian Wood
One of Murakami’s first novels, Norwegian Wood is notable for what it’s missing: There are none of his signature talking cats or lurking magical beings. Instead, it’s a wistful, nostalgic love story that looks back at a long relationship between a troubled girl and the boy whose love for her ends up defining him. It’s the closest thing Murakami’s written to a romance, and it made him rockstar famous in Japan.

What: Watanabe remembers his college days in 1960s Tokyo and his relationships with two very different women.
Why: It’s full of sweet memories about being young and in love, with a rebellious 1960s Tokyo as backdrop.
Weirdness: None, shockingly.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Dance Dance Dance
Dance Dance Dance is classic Murakami: An enigmatic, quasi-magical figure helps a disaffected man solve a mystery. The plot echoes Murakami’s most acclaimed novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this book deals far less with the big heavy issues that Murakami covered in Wind-Up. Instead of spending pages pondering Japanese history and the nature of the psyche, Dance is a personal drama, driven by character, story…and a Sheep Man.

What: A man tries to track down a former one-night stand and ends up in a surreal quest guided by someone called the Sheep Man.
Why: It’s got a lot of the great stuff in Wind-Up Bird but with more plot — and about a million fewer pages.
Weirdness: Notable characters are the Sheep Man, a one-armed poet, and a helpful 13-year-old psychic.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Even Murakami’s best novels sometimes feel like collections of short stories — his books go off on so many tangents and include such long character histories that it’s easy to lose track of the actual plot. Maybe that’s why it seems like Murakami’s at his best as a short story writer. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is full of the surreal themes that define Murakami’s work — disappearing people, super-powered cats — but the author doesn’t grow bored with them or overuse them. How can he? Every few pages, we start a new story, allowing new readers to get a sense of all Murakami can do and all the moods he can capture.

What: 25 stories — all with different plots that share a sense of melancholy.
Why: Many of these stories were published in The New Yorker, so if you’re behind on your subscription, this will catch you up. Plus, you can see all the tools Murakami’s worked with over time — a mini-summary of his whole career.
Weirdness: In what may be the collection’s most famous story, a devious monkey steals a woman’s name and only gives it back after he’s told her a terrible secret.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Alongside all his novels and short stories, Murakami also wrote non-fiction. This strange, low-key description of his life as a runner will get you fit for his writing about more far-flung topics. And if you like his strangely flat approach to his own life story, you’re virtually guaranteed to like his fiction. You’ll also get plenty of insight as to just how much like his own characters he is, and that adds another dimension to his novels.

What: A brief but fun story of Murakami’s life, quite literally, on the road.
Why: The author is as frank about his own motivations as he is about his characters’, and his depiction of his history as a nightclub owner proves authors don’t have to be boring.
Weirdness: When exactly does a person who’s run an ultramarathon find time to write novels?
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
After Dark
Read this one before bedtime, and wonder what you’ve been missing out on: After Dark is a series of vignettes on the inner workings of the world after normal people go to sleep. In it, a young woman in a Denny’s (American fast food is a favorite of Murakami) comes to meet a number of underworld denizens. Meanwhile, her sister languishes in a coma-like sleep that’s somehow leaching out her soul. Substance-wise, this book is so light it could float away — but it carries you along with it. Each character immediately emerges as distinct and unique in their own right, all semi-guiltily up way past their bedtime. Opening a window into the nocturnal lives of all sorts of folks, it’s like a less randy and slightly supernatural “Taxicab Confessions.”

What: Everything you’re missing — some of which you’re glad for — while you’re in bed and the underworld takes over.
Why: It’s undiluted Murakami eccentricity — not very sentimental, but dead-set on entertaining you and freaking you out.
Weirdness: Did you miss the part about the comatose sister whose soul is being stolen?
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
South of the Border, West of the Sun
Not all magic is performed by after-dark soul-snatchers or a Sheep Man. Some of it is just inexplicable, as in the reappearance of the lovely Shimamoto in this novel. Shimamoto, who’d been separated from her love for decades, reappears just as he’s established himself as a family man and successful bar owner. (Handled slightly differently, this becomes what they call “chick lit” — it’s as juicy as it sounds.) This novel does what all the best Murakami works do — asks who we really are when faced with extreme circumstances.

What: A childhood love reappears, and forces a happily settled man to consider life’s big “What-ifs?” It’s a sentimental story, but one that earns the tears you’ll shed.
Why: Because sometimes, a will-they-or-won’t-they story is worth it.
Weirdness: The weirdest part is that, for once, Murakami plays it straight. Start here — and then work up to the talking monkeys and Sheep Men. This author makes the human heart seem weirder, and more relatable, than any of that.