Books for Swimmers

Maybe more than I am anything else, I am a reader. Two or three dog-eared books are always close at hand: on my bedside table, tucked into my purse or backpack, lying open next to me on the couch. I read to escape and I read to engage; for education and for entertainment. I read for inspiration and guidance. I read for solace. I read to improve myself and I read to forget myself. There is no genre of book I won’t read or haven’t loved at least a handful of books from. Every time I hook onto a new interest the first thing I do is to read about it. When I began open water swimming last January, I checked out all the wild swimming books from the library. Since then I have bought and been gifted many more. So I decided to create a page on this blog for swimming books. It’s a work in progress; I’ll add to it as I read and welcome your recommendations.

Fiction:

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

This slim volume brims with beauty and truth. The first section, The Underground Pool, is written as a chorus of voices expounding the magic of swimming to heal and soothe, to bring together, and to transport. The narrators are both individual and collective, general and particular; bringing their unique problems into the shared sanctuary of the pool. Otsuka captures so much of what I love about swimming. 

In the next section of the book, a crack appears in the pool, then another. The community alternatively rallies, ruptures, and splinters. Some reviewers have said this part of the story is an allegory for the pandemic and certainly this section captures the anxiety of the last two years; the uncertainty, conjecture, false narratives, and disruptions. 

The final sections move away from the pool and focus on one of the swimmers, Alice, who is suffering from dementia. The pool was a particular sanctuary for Alice: “And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Heer stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. ‘Up there,’ she says, ‘I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.'”

Without the pool, Alice’s condition worsens (it would have anyway), and the things she forgets slowly outnumber the ones she can remember. Through her own narrowing vision and then through her daughter’s perspective, we see Alice’s life in flashes of memory and we see her slow stumble into death. It’s an incredibly powerful and beautiful story.

The Swimmer by John Cheever

A short story in which a man decides to swim the eight miles home from a party on Long Island via people’s backyard pools with ever-darkening realizations. It’s the story that inspired Roger Deakin to embark on his swim across Britain, a journey he wrote about in his memoir, Waterlog (see below), which itself continues to inspire wild swimmers everywhere.

The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock

At one point in this novel, the narrator (who is also the author) describes the inspiration for an earlier novel, My Abandonment, “My novel arose out of actual events…In the true story, the girl disappeared and never surfaced again; this bothered me so much that I decided to hypothesize about what had happened.”

My sense is that The Night Swimmers is a similar attempt to imagine the ending of a story that was left, maddeningly, unfinished, except, in this case, the unfinished story is the author’s own. Twenty years earlier, the narrator (author) spends a summer after college living in his parents’ lake house, trying to write, and spending his nights swimming in Lake Michigan. An older woman, recently widowed, begins to join him on these night swims and the two develop an intense relationship that plays out entirely in these dark, silent swims. The novel jumps around in time as the narrator tries to make sense of that long-ago summer and find out what became of his swimming companion. The lines between reality and dreams, fiction and nonfiction are purposefully blurred here as Rock not only tells this story but grapples with philosophical questions around story itself.

I thought this was a beautifully written story, compelling and thought-provoking. It’s fragmented and not big on plot, so don’t read it for that. Read it for the immersive descriptions of swimming; the fascinating musings on memory and the relatability of a character in mid-life, trying to make sense of his past selves.

Memoir:

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

This is a beautiful memoir by one of my favorite authors. I read it before my current fascination with swimming and I think I need to go back and read it again.

Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox

This was the first book I read when I started open water swimming and it blew my mind. I had no idea that people accomplished things like swimming all night through icy waters in nothing but a bathing suit. If you’re looking for insights into Lynne Cox’s life, you won’t get many here: it’s not that kind of memoir. But, for wildly outrageous feats of athletic strength, endurance, and courage, this book is amazing.

Grayson by Lynne Cox

I was so inspired by Swimming to Antarctica that I grabbed everything else written by Lynne Cox. This slim book describes an amazing encounter Lynne had with a baby gray whale in Southern California. The whale had become separated from its mother and attached itself to Lynne who ended up spending five hours in the water swimming the whale back to safety. It probably didn’t need to be a whole book, but it’s sweet and inspiring. 

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley

This was another book I read at the beginning of my obsession with open water swimming. It’s part memoir and part how-to, which was a good mix for me at that time. 

Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin 

I just started this beautiful account of the author’s swim across Britain. Well-loved and admired, this memoir inspired multiple waves of wild swimmers in the UK and beyond. 

Swimming to the Top of the Tide by Patricia Hanlon

Find a Way by Diana Nyad

Salt On My Skin by Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Swimming With Seals by Victoria Whitworth

Biography:

In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze by Doloranda Pember

Another birthday present, this one from my friend Charlotte. This book tells the story of the first woman to swim the English Channel. I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait. 

Books about Swimming (Journalism, Politics, Culture, Sociology & History):

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

It was dumb luck that this book by a beloved local author came out right when I started open water swimming. I soaked in every chapter, each delving into some different aspect of swimming: cultural, sociological, historical, literary, personal. Tsui chronicles swimming stories, swimming heroes, swimming oddities; her tales take place in pools, lakes, and oceans.  

Swim: Why we Love the Water by Lynn Sherr

In this book, Lynn Sherr weaves her personal story of swimming with swimming history. My niece’s sweet boyfriend gave it to me for my birthday and I have only just begun to read it. 

Splash: 10,000 Years of Swimming by Howard Means

I just started reading this book and it’s fascinating. A layperson’s history, written in accessible and engaging prose, this book tackles the history of swimming beginning in ancient times (and actually, even earlier by probing into human evolution, our beginnings in water).

Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth

Part memoir, part social history of women and swimming… sign me up! I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait.

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse–I just ordered this from the library.

Early British Swimming 55BC-AD1719 by Nicholas Orme–I don’t know if I’ll read this or not, but if anyone is looking to deep dive into the history of swimming, this looks like another good option.

Reference, How-To, and Swimming Guidebooks:

Open Water Survival Manual: An Expert Guide for Seasoned Open Water Swimmers, Triathletes and Novices by Lynne Cox

The final book I read in my Lynne Cox obsession was this reference book for wild swimming. It was full of useful information and was a good book to have read at the beginning of my open water obsession. 

Crete Swim by Paul Kalas

Another birthday gift; this is a guidebook for swims around Crete by an astronomer friend of my friend Kate, who gave the book to me. I have yet to read it but it sits on my pile in anticipation of a swimming trip to Crete someday.