Archive | 9:20 AM

Book Review: Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (3/5)

20 Feb

This book got a lot of press in my circles when it was published. I’ve been swimming since I was nine and having a book talk about why humans love water and why so many are drawn to it was appealing. Add to that the fact that it came out around the beginning of COVID when I was reading a lot more and aching for lakes to warm up enough I could swim again, and it made it to the list… eventually. It took a virtual event where Tsui was in conversation with one of my favorite runners, Des Lindon, to finally push it onto my list.

41nq9rqzncl._sx332_bo1204203200_Why we Swim by Bonnie Tsui

Summary from Amazon:

We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not naturalborn swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; today, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world. Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s former palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what it is about water that seduces us, and why we come back to it again and again.

Tsui is very drawn to water and easily explains how much it’s been a part of her life since childhood. In many ways, she’s like a lot of friends that I have and teammates I swim with. There were parts of this book that interested me more than others. Some spoke to my own love for the water and others were harder to connect with. I wonder if other swimmers had a similar take on this book. It seemed like it was trying to connect with all people who love the water, but my impression is her major audience was those who participated in organized swimming. Maybe that’s my bias because of who I know.

Tsui inserts herself into as many swimming and water-based traditions as possible. She swims in cold water without a wetsuit, tries her hand at a Japanese water-based martial art, dives for food, and speaks to a shipwreck survivor. She was a great voice to share these experiences because of her own connection with the water. Of course, there’s some bias as she’s someone very passionate about aquatics speaking to those who are passionate about it and writing for an audience who is going to be primarily focused on it as well. I found her swim background relatable and she felt genuine to me.

There were parts of Tsui’s story I related to more than others. I also swim on a masters team, I enjoy open water swimming, and watching Katie Ledecky race fires me up. I saw a lot of my relationship with water and swimming in Tsui’s own. My love for the water wasn’t as heavily influenced by my parents as hers, but we both had early exposure to water and swimming to fuel our passion.


Bonnie Tsui. Image via the New York Times

I thought Tsui’s visit to Iceland was really fun. I’ve been once myself and visited the local public pool so I was familiar with the Icelandic community surrounding pools and swimming. I thought it was fun how she dug into the shipwreck survivor being a folk hero and the community that’s really banded together and focused on swimming as a survival skill. That’s something that’s important to me with a young child. I think the comedian Demetri Martin said it best. “Swimming is a confusing sport because sometimes you do it for fun and sometimes you do it to not die.”

Oddly, I was least engaged with the segment Tsui wrote about competitive swimming. It’s something I’m so close to, that I felt a lot of the things she shared were a bit too common knowledge and didn’t engage me. Other parts of it were really close to personal experiences I’ve had so her view of them felt ‘wrong’ to me. It almost felt like someone else was telling my story and got some of the details wrong.

Humans were not born to swim. We have to learn and be taught while other animals take to the water immediately. There are a lot of reasons why humans learned to swim and why they continue to do so. There are few things that I feel are as universally loved as the water. I’ve been in oceans, lakes, and pools around the world with people I had no common language with but we all understood the joy and serenity we had found in the water. A huge part of our world is covered in water so it’s something that had to develop as a part of almost every culture. Water can never be mastered and should always be respected.

Writer’s Takeaway: I was a bit disappointed in this book. I guess I was looking for something a bit less autobiographical. Tsui put a lot of her own story in the book and her own reasons for swimming. While some of them resonated with me, I didn’t feel it kept with the title and my expectations. It was a bit more of a memoir for a few stretches. I know there’s a fine balance for nonfiction writers between including yourself in the work and it feeling like a textbook. I think this one was a bit too personalized for my taste. I would have liked to get at least one other voice in the book, talking about their personal reasons for swimming and love of the water. Tsui’s voice seemed to dominate too much.

Enjoyable, but not the profound message I was waiting for. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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