I’m not sure if Mark Rowlands’ very enjoyable book Running With the Pack will serve as an introduction to the world of philosophy or merely act as a brief detour from the types of genre fiction I usually stump up for – I suspect the latter – but it was certainly a thought-provoking and entertaining read.
Welsh-born Rowlands is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, and I first became aware of him when I read an excerpt from his first book The Philosopher and the Wolf (detailing his relationship with Brenin, a wolf he acquired when working at the University of Alabama) in The Good Weekend magazine. Rowlands is also an amateur runner, not a particularly good one by his own admission, and for him running and philosophy are inextricably linked. Rowlands feels running is a way of ‘understanding what is important or valuable in life’, and finds his thoughts on many topics become clearer and more focused when immersed in the rhythm, what he calls ‘the heartbeat’, of a long run.
Along the way Rowlands tips his hat to Plato, Moritz Schlick, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume and Rene Descartes – among others – and grapples with some of life’s perennial teasers: love, what is freedom?, ageing and decline, work versus play and, perhaps the most daunting of them all, fatherhood.
Part memoir, part dissertation, Rowlands revisits some of the more monumental runs of his life, like spending an entire day running as a child with his dog, to attempting his first marathon at age 48 – an event he turned up for in inadequate shape after injuries ruined his training. Each run triggers some rumination on different questions he is wrestling with at the time. I’ll be honest – he lost me on more than one occasion, but what makes the book so good, and why I’m sure I’ll revisit it somewhere down the road, is Rowlands’ sense of humour and some of the sheer poetry of his writing. Take, for instance, this on what it means to run:-
“Running is a place where I remember. Most importantly, it is a place where I remember not the thoughts of others, but something that I once knew, a lifetime ago, but was forced to forget in the process of growing up and becoming someone.”
Or his thoughts upon seeing his young son smile for the first time:-
“When my first son smiled at me the love I felt was decisively shaped by a certain type of recognition. It was not that I recognised my genes in his smile – genes that had somehow been hidden in his scowls, gas-fuelled grimaces and blank stares. Rather, in his smile I recognised utter helplessness, but also the beginnings – nascent, halting and as yet uncertain – of trust. Life can crush him in a heartbeat; but it can do the same to me too. The differences between us are of degree, not kind. Indeed, in the end life will crush us both. After a promising but ultimately misleading start, life will chew us up and spit us out. We have been thrown into a bad place, abandoned in a strange land built on evil principles. And in his smile I saw this abandonment echoing down through the ages…But the trust, the nascent trust – well, that’s just the most heartbreaking of all. You should not trust me, my sons. I know the world. I’ll do the best I can. But in the end, in my most important duty of protection, I shall always fail you. I’m just not good enough. I cannot save you. No one can.”
Yes, it’s heavy going at times and not always comfortable reading, but it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Rowlands’ ‘thoughts from the road on meaning and mortality’ may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is a thoughtful, intelligent and highly skilled writer. Roll on a novel and the movie, I’m off to find my running shoes.