Before I begin my book review…
I’d like to acknowledge and give thanks to my friend, who for the sake of privacy, I will refer to as “The Swimmer.” She has invited me several times to swim with her in the lakes and beaches of Northern California, and I have hitherto declined. My reluctance is not a reflection upon her. It’s purely stubborn pride, and a refusal to be witnessed in an environment where I’m truly out of my depth (pun intended.) Thank you to “The Swimmer” for passing this lovely book along to me. Why We Swim was a wonderful read.
As you might have already surmised from the preface, I’m not much of a swimmer. It’s not that I can’t swim. I can. Growing up in Florida, it felt like a requirement. My childhood home had a pool in the backyard. And because my father was an avid fisherman with a motorboat, I became accustomed to water at an early age.
But in spite of my familiarity, I’ve always held, what I viewed as, a healthy respect for bodies of water in their various forms (puddles included.)
Pools seemed easy enough. As a child, I’d dive underwater. In the weightlessness of the deep end, I would pretend I was a ballerina performing languid pirouettes en pointe. Running out of air, I’d quickly rise to the surface, treading water with a sense of exhilaration at what I’d just done. The edge of the pool within sight and easily accessible.
Open water was a different animal. I still have vivid memories of my maternal grandfather swimming in Daytona Beach. He seemed so far away, without a care. I would sit on the shore watching him. My unease was palpable. To me, swimming in the ocean meant competing with waves, currents, and tangles of seaweed, an anxiety cocktail I had no interest in consuming.
That being said, I cannot deny the peace I’ve derived from being near open water. The sounds. The smells. The intimate connection with nature’s immensity and mysteries. It’s a unique experience, and likely why I prefer living in coastal areas. Access to the ocean is important to me and my family.
Although I’m not a swimmer, I’ve always been fascinated by them. Low-key envious, even. From the outside looking in, the really good swimmers (those who dedicate their time to the practice) seem to have tapped into a level of zen physicality that is hard to obtain in other forms of exercise. There’s something both primal and eternally relevant about swimming. And that’s what fascinates me, whether I’m watching Katie Ledecky competing in the 1500, or Diane Nyad crossing the waters separating Cuba and Key West.
Book Review Time
Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim explores what draws humans to the practice of swimming. For some it’s purely a recreational sport, while for others it’s a practice that borders on religiosity. In a series of poignant and personal human interest stories, Tsui creates a moving narrative focused on the power of swimming, its healing and restorative effects, and its ability to foster enduring communities, even in times of unrest.
Why We Swim also delves into the political and social morés which have limited community pool access to certain populations and has led to lasting racial disparities in swimming ability as well as incidence of drowning.
Why We Swim is an informative and well-researched book, providing historical context to our relationship with water. But at its very heart, this book is a touching memoir, and a lyrical ode to the practice of swimming.
Tsui is a lifelong swimmer, and her personal and family history (in the water) surfaces throughout the book. Tsui’s love, in particular of open water swimming, is evident. It seems as necessary to her as the air we breathe. And her beautiful writing style conveys that love.
Whether you consider yourself a swimmer or not, this book will both inspire and entertain you. If you haven’t already, make sure to check it out.
If you’re interested in learning more about Bonnie Tsui and Why We Swim, I would highly recommend you watch Rich Roll’s podcast interview featuring Tsui from 2021, https://youtu.be/9bVV8YVK930.
And if you enjoy novels about swimming, check out these previous booksandbevs7 posts:
One Final Note
Don’t forget to participate in bookstore/library shout-outs. Here’s a reminder of what it’s all about:
In this segment, I will post a message from a booksandbevs7 follower, spotlighting their favorite bookstore or library. You can even send a shout-out to a staff member or librarian who helped you find the perfect book. Send your personal messages to email@example.com, with the subject line, “bookstore/library shout-out.” Let me know if you would like your first name included on the message, or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous. If you don’t specify, the message will default to anonymous.
I hope you all will participate and I look forward to relaying your messages in future posts.
Until next time…happy reading!!!