Why We Swim

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By Bonnie Tsui

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“A fascinating and beautifully written love letter to water. I was enchanted by this book." —Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
 
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.

An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself.
 

Excerpt

SURVIVAL

An old map from when this place was first settled shows monsters everywhere, once the shore gives out . . .

—Carl Phillips, "Swimming"

One night over dinner, my husband tells me a story he heard about a boat in the North Atlantic and a man who should have drowned. Late on the evening of March 11, 1984, a fishing trawler was working on calm seas three miles east of the island of Heimaey, part of an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The sky was clear, the air a wintry twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. There were five crew aboard the vessel. Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, the boat's mate, was just twenty-two years old; he had taken a break and was asleep below deck when he was woken up by the cook, who told him the trawling gear had snagged on the sea bottom. Soon after Friðþórsson arrived on deck, he saw that the crew were trying to winch up the gear. One of the trawl wires was taut over the side, pulling the boat over so far that the sea had begun to wash through the railings. Friðþórsson shouted a warning. The captain, Hjörtur Jónsson, gave instructions to slacken the winch, but then it jammed. A swell ran under the boat, overturning it, and the sailors found themselves pitched into the freezing sea.

Two of the men drowned almost immediately, but the remaining three, including Friðþórsson, managed to grab hold of the boat's keel. The vessel quickly began to sink, and they could not release the emergency raft. In the forty-one-degree water, they would have less than half an hour before hypothermia claimed them. The three began to swim toward the shore. Within minutes, only two remained: Jónsson and Friðþórsson.

The two men called to one other as they swam, to spur each other on. Then Jónsson stopped responding. Friðþórsson, wearing blue work pants, a red flannel shirt, and a thin sweater, kept swimming, and found himself talking to seagulls to stay awake. A boat came within three hundred and fifty feet of him and he shouted as loud as he could, but it sailed away. He swam backstroke, his eyes trained on the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. Eventually he heard the surf crashing on the coast. He prayed he would not get obliterated on the rocks. He found himself up against the base of a steep cliff, exhausted and terribly thirsty, unable to feel any of his extremities. With no way to climb up, he turned back to the sea, adjusted course, and swam farther south, where he came ashore and made his way slowly across a spiky, snow-covered lava field over a mile into town, stopping to punch through an inch-thick layer of ice on a sheep cistern to get a drink of water. When he finally arrived in town, it seemed to him a splendid dream-vision of life; he knocked on the door of the first home he saw with lights on. He was barefoot and covered in frost. Behind him was a trail of bloody footprints on the sidewalk leading up to the house.

This is a true story. In the end, Friðþórsson survived six hours in frigid seas and swam more than three and a half miles to land. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors were unable to discern his pulse. And yet he showed no signs of hypothermia, only dehydration.

Friðþórsson's body, it turns out, resembled a seal's. Researchers later determined that he was insulated by fourteen millimeters of fat—two or three times the normal human thickness, and more solid. This man was more marine mammal than terrestrial. He had a biological quirk that saved him: it kept him warm, buoyant, and able to keep swimming. Many called him a real-life selkie—that half-man, half-seal figure of Icelandic and Scottish lore. To me, he is a living reminder that we are not so far removed from the sea.

As humans, we walk the earth. We are land creatures with an aquatic past. I'm drawn to stories like Friðþórsson's because I want to know what remains of that past, today. In a way, all swimming stories—from the naiads of Greek myth to the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013—are attempts to reacquaint our land-adapted selves with water. We humans are not natural-born swimmers, but we have figured out ways to reclaim abilities that existed before that land-sea split in our evolution, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Why do we swim, when evolution has shaped us to excel on land by running down prey until it drops from exhaustion? Of course it has to do with survival: Somewhere along the way, swimming helped us to get from one prehistoric lakeshore to another and escape predators of our own; to dive for that trove of bigger shellfish and get to new sources of food; to venture across oceans and settle new lands; to navigate all manner of aquatic perils and see swimming as a source of joy, pleasure, achievement. To arrive at this day, to talk about why we swim.

This book is an investigation of what seduces us to water, despite its dangers, and why we come back to it again and again. It's clear to me that once we can swim for survival, swimming can be so much more. The act of swimming can be one of healing, and health—a way to well-being. Swimming together can be a way to find community, through a team, a club, or a shared, beloved body of water. We have only to watch each other in water to know that it creates the space for play. If we get good enough at the thing, it can be an engine of competition—a way to test our mettle, in the pool or open water. Swimming is about the mind, too. To find rhythm in the water is to discover a new way of being in the world, through flow. This is about our human relationship to water and how immersion can open our imaginations.

More than 70 percent of the planet is covered by water; 40 percent of the global population lives less than sixty miles from the coast. This book is for swimmers and curious humans of every stripe and age, whether you are drawn to water for speed or distance or transcendence. This is for those who heed the siren call of the water. It's also for those of us who seek to understand ourselves, that lost, quiet state of just being—no technology, no beeps—dating back to our watery human origins.

We choose to put ourselves in all kinds of waters: oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, pools. We even have a romance with lifeguards, the custodians of those places. At the intersection of these things, my family story begins—and not just because my mother and father met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong.

I learned to swim when I was five years old, for the simple reason that my parents didn't want me to drown: in the bath, in the neighbor's backyard pool, at the beach. As a kid at Jones Beach, New York, I spent a lot of time in the four feet of water at the scalloped, lacy edge of the Atlantic. I can picture the scene clearly: My brother and cousins and I bob up and down in the shallows, waiting for a wave to come and lift us off our feet. We use our arms as rudders to pilot us along the face of a wave as it breaks, depositing us at the foamy intersection where water meets sand. Get up, laugh, repeat.

We are mesmerized by that heaving body of water. So is everybody else. On a hot day, and on a holiday, a hundred thousand other people might be there at Jones Beach. Lifeguards sit sentinel at their elevated stations, policing the crowds from behind mirrored sunglasses.

There's something primal about a day like that at the beach—it's all the animals heading to the watering hole. Water is a magnet for our teeming throng of humanity. I watch the ways people dip in and out. Some are just there to cool off: electrifying entry, quick exit. Some stay awhile, floating and splashing and swimming. Always there are people who keep their distance and don't go in at all. But still they come, hypnotized by the pulse of the ocean, alive to the sound of the surf and the smell of the briny air.

I felt the draw of liquid early on: that slide into lovely immersion, that spiraling weightlessness, that privileged access to a muted underworld. Entry was granted to me there at Jones Beach, where we passed the hours within shouting distance of our moms' blue-flowered beach towels. In between swims, we gave each other wedgies and buried ourselves in the sand. I liked how the ocean seemed to draw breath, lying placid one moment and rearing up the next, moving us in one rippling mass to and from the horizon. Once, a big wave came and smacked me from behind. Surprise overturning, ass over teakettle. Then, a liquid, green room, clouded by sand. Me, swimming and swimming toward nothing. Which way is up? Four feet isn't very much water, but it's deep enough to drown in.

Time stretched. I wondered about the press of my burning lungs, wishing for air.

Time restarted with an accidental kick to the head, from my cousin swimming not two feet away. Gifted this reference point, I scrambled to the surface, my hair wrapped around my face like kelp. Embarrassed and gasping, I looked around. When I realized that no one had noticed I was in trouble, I pretended that I never was. And I turned right back into the sea.

What could bring on this voluntary amnesia? What did I find so alluring about the water that I could forgive a murder attempt by the sea, and so quickly at that? Most every year, a handful of people drown at the beaches of Long Island. At the time, I was just a young swimmer, going back for more of the magic: the illusion of being native to an element that is not home to humans like me.

What I experienced that day stayed with me—three decades later I'm an adult who swims for pleasure and exercise nearly every day, and yet I wonder about the deeper, more primitive instincts that drive us. We are pulled to the paradox of water as a source of life and death, and we have figured out myriad ways to conduct ourselves in it. Not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell. In the examination of this universal experience—and it is universal, whether you are fearful of the water or not; whether you love it or leave it, you will encounter it at some point in your life—we find ourselves flexing our survival muscles, achieving something quietly triumphant with our persistence in the medium. Together we are pool-hopping, chasing oases, immersing ourselves, in search of the bait that pulls us into the depths. This is an exploration of a world. Let's go for a swim.

We begin with a shellfish.




1

Stone Age Swimming

The abalone does not want to come off the rock. Fifteen feet underwater, I jab the metal abalone iron underneath the shell, between the mollusk's muscular foot and the boulder it's fastened to, hoping for the pop I've been promised. Nothing.

I try again, my breath beginning to bubble out of my nose with the effort of swimming in place, fighting the currents that are pulling me to and fro. Still nothing. This abalone, evidently sensing my presence, has locked down tight. Once that happens, I am finding, it is nearly impossible to remove.

Diving for abalone is an attractive but dangerous sport. In pursuit of the elusive mollusk, I've submerged myself in the waters of Salt Point State Park, along the solitary, switch-backed Sonoma Coast two and a half hours north of San Francisco. The hazards are many: cold water, rip currents, rocks, kelp tangles, heavy surf, sharks. Still, most every season, April through November, thousands of hopeful swimmers make their way to the Northern California coast to try their hand at abalone hunting. The wild red abalone is the biggest in the world and is found only on the west coast of North America. It's where I can play the role of prehistoric hunter, swimming down for my dinner, with zero experience.

I hold a scuba certification, but over the years all that gear has come to feel claustrophobic and encumbering when I'm in the water. Here on this part of the coast, scuba tanks are illegal, so abalone divers are armed with few tools beyond their breath-holding and swimming skills. The reality of this back-to-basics, man-versus-nature pursuit is that every cove along this part of the coast, rangers say, is a gravesite: in 2015, four people died while abalone diving during the first three weeks of the season alone. It turns out that even experienced divers can't hold their breath for long; people who are used to wearing full tanks of air start to panic when confronted with this fact. In the murky water, it's tough to stay oriented. The swell will toss you against the rocks and then suck you out to sea.

But still, I want to try. I learn to spot the abalone's rippling lip of black tissue, or mantle, against the side of a big, craggy escarpment. I struggle to dislodge one, then another. An ancient, pea-size part of my brain lights up with satisfaction when I jackknife down to the seafloor, eyes on the prize, and finally hoist a six-pound abalone out of the water. I need both hands to haul it up and both legs to propel me; I can feel the grin forming on my lips before my head even breaks the surface.

I've never felt the urge to shoot a bird for breakfast or run down a deer for dinner. But the direct appeal of swimming for my lunch is clear from the moment I spy the shellfish. There is something I need to understand about the act of swimming for something more essential than exercise. In my backyard later that day, I clean, trim, and pound the meat tender—yep, with a rock—cook it up over a flame, and feed my family of four a meal I've prepared entirely with my own hands and breath and body. We are divorced from our food sources; it is a recognized symptom of modern life. Swimming for resources allows me, for a moment, to resolve the disconnect. That evening, when I rinse my hands in the sink and watch the water drain away, I remember the rhythmic sluicing of seawater through the rocks along the shoreline and what it felt like to watch it all flow back toward the horizon.

The first known record of swimming lies in the middle of a desert. Somewhere in Egypt, near the Libyan border, in the Sahara's remote and mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau, there are swimmers breaststroking up the walls of a cave.

The Cave of Swimmers, discovered by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy in 1933, contains a trove of Neolithic paintings that depict people in a range of underwater poses. Archaeologists have dated the creation of the artwork as far back as ten thousand years ago. At the time of Almásy's discovery, the notion that the Sahara had not always been a desert was a radical idea. Theories of a climate change that could account for the shift from temperate environs to barren, hyper-arid desert were so new that the editor of Almásy's 1934 book, The Unknown Sahara, reportedly felt compelled to insert footnotes stating disagreement. But the paintings convinced Almásy himself that water might have been a natural feature in the immediate vicinity of the cave, that the swimmers themselves were the painters, that a lake lapped their very toes as they worked. Where there is now a sea of sand, there was water flowing. Where one medium is liquid life, the other may seem to be its parched, granular antithesis, he thought, but the two were indeed connected.

It turns out, of course, that Almásy was right. Decades later, archaeologists would find dried lake beds not far from the cave, from a time when the Sahara was green. His answer to the riddle of swimmers in the desert would eventually be confirmed with a remarkable abundance of geological evidence showing a landscape once dotted with ancient lakes, as well as the startling discovery of hippo bones and the remains of many other water-dwelling animals, including giant tortoises, fish, and clams. This wet period became known as the Green Sahara.

Not long ago, in an old issue of National Geographic, I read about a paleontologist named Paul Sereno who further confirmed Almásy's hunch. In the fall of 2000, Sereno was hunting for dinosaur bones in a different part of the Sahara, the southern edge, in conflict-prone, little-explored Niger. In the open desert, some 125 miles from the country's largest city, Agadez, one of his expedition photographers scrambled up a remote group of dunes—and stumbled across a massive trove of skeletons. This time, the bones weren't from dinosaurs or hippos.

These eroding, windswept sand dunes revealed what turned out to be hundreds of human remains, interspersed with prehistoric fragments of pottery that were up to ten thousand years old. Some of the pottery pieces were carved with wavy lines; others were stippled with dots. The burial place, which the scientists called Gobero, the Tuareg tribal name for the area, was the largest and earliest Stone Age cemetery found to date. It turns out that the Green Sahara was exactly the sort of place where prehistoric human swimmers might exist.

On a bitingly cold January afternoon, I meet Paul Sereno at his fossil lab at the University of Chicago, where he has been a professor for more than thirty years. There isn't much scholarship specific to Stone Age swimming, so I want him to help me conjure up a picture of this prehistoric world. Sereno doesn't swim much himself, but he has spent a lot of time thinking about the swimming abilities of both dinosaurs and people (he's one of the scientists whose research established Spinosaurus aegyptiacus as the first known swimming dinosaur). There's a dash of Indiana Jones to him—he has the leather jacket and the restless enthusiasm, and he was once voted one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People."

I ask Sereno to reconstruct for me an ancient environment that was suitable for swimming. In the Green Sahara of ten thousand years ago, he says, Gobero resembled "a Daytona Beach in the desert"—a vast interlinked system of shallow lakes, many of them about ten feet deep, with sand spits that allowed humans to walk out to the water.

Scientists have named the aquatic system Paleolake Gobero. One of its most critical geographic features was a fault on one side, which did two things. One, it dammed up deep groundwater, so there was always water there even if it didn't rain for a long while. Two, when it did rain, or when the groundwater welled up, the fault cliff acted as a natural dam flanking the site, with periodic spills to regulate levels in the basin. The shallow aquatic system came and went, but it was stable enough that people lived along its shores for many thousands of years. The pristine burial site contained the remains of two distinct populations of humans, their occupations separated by a period of a thousand years, during which the lake disappeared and the site was abandoned. This greening and drying of the Sahara, Sereno says, was the largest climate change since the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago.

There were immense middens of shucked clamshells—so many shells that Sereno thinks the people of Gobero must have dived for clams as well as collected them from shore. And the evidence there suggests that this was not the only means of catching dinner. There were carved fishhooks and finely honed barbed harpoon tips made from the jawbones of crocodiles. Sereno and his team even found four harpoons embedded in the lake bed itself. "They likely had boats," Sereno says. "But we have no idea what the boats looked like, or what they were made of. And with the harpoons way out in the middle of the lake bed, I'd guess that they probably swam with their boats, too."

Sereno's team also discovered heavy, flat-bottomed stones—what they suspect to be weights for netting fish like tilapia and catfish. In a lab workroom where researchers clean and prepare materials for display, he hands me one of these, a smooth, brown-speckled oval that has a pleasing heft. In that lake, the ancient fishermen speared and landed impressive catches of Nile perch, a freshwater monstrosity that can grow to six feet long and weigh more than four hundred pounds. The species, though in decline today, is still an important food source in many parts of Africa.

A lot of things surprise me as I poke about the lab of this famous paleontologist. Sereno is pretty blithe about the test tubes of invaluable early human DNA bagged up and sitting on his desk (still waiting to be sent out for analysis) and about the half-prepped new dinosaur species in his cabinet (still waiting to be named). If you have a roaming curiosity that refuses to settle long enough to get hung up on paperwork, I suppose you'd leave those things lying around, too.

"Have you ever seen a dinosaur mummy? I love mummies!" he exclaims as he invites me to examine a rare dinosaur fossil that reveals the specimen's textured hide. I run my fingers lightly over the imprint's bumps and ridges. The first thing that comes to my mind is dinosaur leather, and I can't stop myself from blurting it out loud. Sereno allows me to handle everything in the lab—from sharp arrowheads and fragile pottery to a plate from a stegosaurus and even the remnants of a T. rex. This physical proximity to the past, paired with Sereno's enthusiastic, mile-a-minute commentary, is nothing short of spellbinding. A little side trip to Prehistoric Times.

But, with all the evidence, we still can't tell how well the people of Paleolake Gobero swam—the frustrating thing about investigating the trail of humans' aquatic past is that a wake doesn't stick around. What Sereno and his researchers can show is that these inhabitants of the Green Sahara led a hunter-gatherer existence, pool-hopping as needed but mostly staying put by the water.

I like to imagine that these early humans dove for their towers of clams the way I dove for abalone—with some kicking and bobbing and gasping, yes, but also with a measure of wonder and joy. It's not so hard to picture how that might have happened. I think about my own sons, who are no happier than when it's low tide in Bolinas, a little coastal hamlet an hour north of where we live in Berkeley, California. In the mornings, there's often a low fog hanging over the silvery lagoon. The boys race around on the muddy flats revealed by the receding tide, leaping over darkly sandy rivulets. They dart to and from the edge of a restless ocean. They throw seaweed at each other. They build pyramids of sand, jabbering a detailed backstory to go with the miniature complex they have constructed, before they inundate the whole thing with a mass flood. I watch as they dance in and out of the water, continually testing their comfort with the depths. They both love the sea. Felix, the older, has known how to swim for some time, but Teddy, the younger, is still shy around water that moves of its own accord.

Perhaps it happened this same way, so many thousands of years ago. A girl gathers clams at the edge of a paleolake. It's been her job as long as she can remember. She can see the clams just beyond the drop-off to deeper waters. Maybe those clams are bigger than the ones she can reach just by wading. One day, she wonders if she could hold her breath to get to them. Little by little, she ventures out and back, out and back, pushing off the sandy bottom with her toes, bobbing at the surface, frog kicking her legs to free her face from the water. Weeks go by, maybe months. The bobbing and gasping eventually give way to something she can sustain. She knows what it is to float untroubled, conserving energy, and what it is to scissor her body and swoop down when she spies a promising mollusk. She finds success in unearthing a new cache of food. Others start to imitate her up-down, up-down method.

There's a magic to being able to look at tangible objects from a bygone era—to say, See here. They were here, where we stand, right now. To point at a curved arm bracelet made of hippo ivory and say, She wore this. To pick up the jagged tip of a spear and picture those water hunters diving and digging and swimming. Paleo man! Just like us!

These early humans were agile enough to avoid hippos and crocodiles that shared the water with them, and they would have had time enough to master swimming, because they weren't scouring the landscape in search of water or food. The lake, and the animal riches contained therein, made it possible for these societies to thrive for millennia right on its shores. Elsewhere in the Green Sahara, during this same wet period, perhaps those cave painters were swimming, too.

Though the earliest evidence of human swimming dates back just ten thousand years, we most likely knew how to swim much earlier than that. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, began to evolve nearly two hundred thousand years ago from other species of now-extinct ancestral humans. There is evidence of those ancestral humans going to sea, too. In 2008, on the Greek island of Crete, a team of researchers found quartz stone hand axes that were hundreds of thousands of years old, embedded in rock terraces near cave shelters on the southern coast. The rough tools were unlike any others previously found there and resembled those used by Homo erectus, a species of ancestral human found in Africa and mainland Europe. Because Crete has been separated from the mainland for five million years, those ancestral humans would have had to travel to the island by open water. It was proof of Mediterranean seafaring peoples tens of thousands of years earlier than scientists had previously thought. Open-ocean voyages are pretty hard to pull off if you don't know how to swim, or if you don't have comfort and familiarity with the water.

Even Neanderthals, extinct close relatives of humans, may have swum for their food. I consult the British anthropologist Chris Stringer, who studies Neanderthals and is an expert on human origins at London's Natural History Museum; his team's findings from caves in Gibraltar showed that late-surviving Neanderthals, who overlapped with modern humans, lived off the sea about twenty-eight thousand years ago, before they died out. The Neanderthals collected mussels from a river estuary and butchered seals and dolphins, dragging them into caves for food prep by the fire. How did Neanderthals catch those fish and dolphins and seals? We can't tell if or how they swam, but the distribution of the marine animal remains in the caves' strata shows that Neanderthals had longtime knowledge and familiarity with coastal resources, a behavior that has rarely been found before modern humans came along.

But if diving for abalone taught me anything, it is how easy the act of swimming can seem—and how imperceptible the dangers can be. Sereno tells me that the most striking discovery at Gobero actually has to do with swimming, and drowning: a moving triple burial at the edge of the paleolake that his team dubbed the "Stone Age Embrace."

He describes what it was like to uncover the three bodies: a thirty-year-old woman and two small children, aged five and eight, lying intimately together with hands intertwined. "It was a spectacular burial, three crania coming to the surface," he says, recalling the delicate unearthing of the skulls. The team moved carefully during the excavation, which was difficult to perform. Loose sand moves like water; every time you brush it away, it trickles back.

The poignancy of the pose—arms stretched to the other, holding hands—affected everyone on the expedition. The arrangement seemed clearly ceremonial, Sereno says. A sample of sand taken at the scene later showed that flowers—a species in a genus called Celosia, part of the amaranth family, that can come in many colors—had been laid down. Arrowheads carved from petrified wood were found underneath the bodies. They were X-rayed and scanned with an electron microscope: the analysis showed that they were never fired, and were probably deliberately placed there for symbolic purposes. When examined, the skeletons and teeth revealed no stress patterns of injury or disease.

Genre:

  • A Time Magazine Must-Read Book of 2020
    A Best Book of the Season: BuzzFeed * Bustle San Francisco Chronicle
    A Best Book of the Year: NPR's Book ConciergeWashington Independent Review of Books

    Featured in San Francisco Chronicle's 10 books by Bay Area authors that should be on your holiday list”
    A Goodreads Science Technology Award Finalist


    “[An] enthusiastic and thoughtful work mixing history, journalism and elements of memoir . . . Tsui sets out to answer her title’s question with a compassionate understanding of how that mind game stops some and a curiosity about how and why it seduces others . . . Tsui endears herself to the reader as well. Her universal query is also one of self, and her articulations of what she learns are moving.”
    The New York Times Book Review

    "Tsui’s history of the human relationship with water is compelling and profound, in writing so fluid it mimics the flow of her subject . . . It captivated me from start to finish."
    BuzzFeed (24 Books We Couldn't Put Down)

    "A cultural history of humankind’s relationship to bodies of water, an exploration of the benefits and dangers of submerging one’s own body in it, a highlight reel of athletic feats of swimming and diving – and so much more. Author Bonnie Tsui creates space for readers to meditate on their own experiences in the water. As I read it I found an escape, but also a connection to the water and to fellow humans who are called to it.”
    NPR's Book Concierge

    “A thoughtful inquiry into human nature." 
    Bustle (The 18 Most Anticipated Books Of April 2020)

    “Bonnie Tsui captures the joy, peril and utility of swimming, within her family and across civilizations . . . The breadth of her reporting and grace of her writing make the elements of Why We Swim move harmoniously as one."
    The San Francisco Chronicle

    “Former competitive swimmer and current do-it-all writer Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim . . .  explores our relationship with a sport that quite literally represents quiet and flow (something we could use more of, no?) by offering a look at a grab bag of eclectic examples, like swimming samurais and an Icelandic shipwreck survivor.”
    Outside Magazine

    “This fascinating look at the positive impact swimming has had on our lives throughout history might leave most readers eager to get back in the water as soon as possible.”
    Booklist, starred review

    “Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of ‘an unflinching giving-over to an element’ and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually). An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.”
    Kirkus Reviews
     

    “Tsui opens her eclectic, well-crafted survey with a fascinating story about an Icelandic fisherman who swam six kilometers in 41 degree water after his boat capsized . . . Readers will enjoy getting to know the people and the facts presented in this fascinating book.”
    Publishers Weekly

    "Tsui is a poetic writer whose flowing, immersive prose and colorful storytelling will hold significant appeal for readers—especially swimmers—of all curiosities.”
    Shelf Awareness

    “Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a love letter to swimming . . . In the tradition of memoir writers like Rebecca Solnit, Tsui examines the history of swimming as a sport, a survival skill, and even a martial art . . . Her hybrid memoir and history book traces swimming’s roots around the globe while also looking at how a swim can be a meditative, transformative, and deeply personal activity.”
    —Alta

    Why We Swim is a celebration of the many varieties of joy that swimming brings to our oxygen-breathing species.”
    Foreword Reviews

     “A beautifully written love letter to water and a fascinating story. I was enchanted.”
    Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    “The only thing better than reading Bonnie Tsui’s writing about swimming is swimming itself—and both are sublime. Why We Swim is an aquatic tour de force, a captivating story filled with adventure, meditation, and celebration.”
    —Susan Casey, New York Times bestselling author of The Wave and Voices in the Ocean

    “This is a jewel of a book, a paean to the wonders of water and our place within it.”
    James Nestor, author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

    “Magnificent. Only a truly great story can hold my attention and Why We Swim had me nailed to the chair . . . I love this book."
    Christopher McDougall, bestselling author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes

    Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world's most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won't regret diving in.”
    —Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

On Sale
Apr 13, 2021
Page Count
288 pages
Publisher
Algonquin Books
ISBN-13
9781643751375

Bonnie Tsui

About the Author

Bonnie Tsui lives, swims, and surfs in the Bay Area. A longtime contributor to the New York Times and California Sunday Magazine, she has been the recipient of the Jane Rainie Opel Young Alumna Award from Harvard University, the Lowell Thomas Gold Award, and a National Press Foundation Fellowship. Her last book, American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best of 2009 Notable Bay Area Books selection. Her website is bonnietsui.com.

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