Author: Anna Hattersley
Why do we swim? How do some swimmers push themselves to extremes? Here are ten of the best swimming books that show that there is more to swimming than meets the eye. From knitted swimwear to cold war politics, tracking sharks to midnight dips, these books celebrate swimming, the swimming community and our watery world.
My main criteria were that they entertain, inform and inspire.
In this review, I have excluded guidebooks and training guides, as they deserve lists of their own, as do fictional swim stories.
See if your favourites are here - What would you add to the list?Contents
- 'Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain - Roger Deakin
- 'Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves' - James Nestor
- 'Hell and High Water: One Man’s Attempt to Swim the Length of Britain' – Sean Conway
- 'Swell: A Waterbiography' - Jenny Landreth
- 'Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer' - Lynne Cox
- 'Why We Swim' - Bonnie Tsui
- 'I Found My Tribe' – Ruth Fitzmaurice
- 'Swim: Why We love the Water' - Lynn Sherr
- 'Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora' – Keven Dawson
- 'Achieving the Impossible. A Fearless Hero. A Fragile Earth' – Lewis Gordon Pugh
- Conclusion & Further Reading
1. 'Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain' - Roger Deakin
This was the book that started me off exploring rivers, lakes and coasts from the water. It is a lyrical love song to swimming and swimmers. It is as whimsical as Deakin is eccentric.
Deakin was an eloquent writer and environmentalist so his passion for nature and swimming leaps from the page. It is not a journey around Britain from A to B, and does not cover the whole country. It is more a beautiful collage of Deakin’s swims over the course of a year.
2. 'Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves' – James Nestor
Freediving is a lens through which Nestor explores the ocean. He meets the Ama of Japan who have freedived for thousands of years and recognise that they are part of the sea when they do, but also competitive freedivers who push their bodies to extremes with their eyes tight shut.
Nestor keeps his eyes firmly open, even during a harrowing submarine trip, and takes us on a journey of discovery into the ocean and ourselves. He is an excellent storyteller with a cast of scientists, freedivers, environmentalists and awe-inspiring marine life. Through his journey to learn freediving, we all learn more about ourselves as swimmers and humans.
3. 'Hell and High Water: One Man’s Attempt to Swim the Length of Britain' – Sean Conway
My great takeaway from this book, and reason for recommending it so highly, is Conway’s sheer unpreparedness and spirit of adventure. Reading it was a reminder to just get outside and have adventures, big or small. Conway writes entertainingly as he swims his way up Britain, via Ireland, from Land’s End to John O' Groats, stopping at a fair few pubs on route.
4. 'Swell: A Waterbiography' – Jenny Landreth
Landreth provides an interesting insight into the tenacious, female pioneers of swimming who fought prejudice and ignorance in the UK and the US to be allowed to swim – something that I have had the good fortune to take for granted.
It made me appreciate those people who have fought for swimming equality and is a reminder that not everyone has an equal right or ability to access swimming today.
5. 'Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer' – Lynne Cox
Swimming across the frigid Bering Strait between America and the Soviet Union to nurture Soviet-American relations during the Cold War is not your usual swimming goal. Cox however is not your usual swimmer.
I was inspired by her achievements which include crossing the Straits of Magellan, Cape of Good Hope and Cook Strait in New Zealand. This autobiographical book recounts her many swimming achievements with gratitude and humility.
6. 'Why We Swim' – Bonnie Tsui
Tsui, a swimmer and contributor to the New York Times, travels the globe in search of answers to why swim, weaving in her own experiences. She looks at questions of survival, well-being, community, competition, and flow and tells the stories of fishermen, Olympic champions and swimming samurai.
7. 'I Found My Tribe' – Ruth Fitzmaurice
Many people swim for their mental wellbeing, connection and community. I Found my Tribe is a tribute to Fitzmaurice’s swimming tribe, the ‘The Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club, as well as to her family and friends. This is a memoir of life with her husband Simon, who has Motor Neurone Disease, swimming, water and friendship.
8. 'Swim: Why We love the Water' – Lynn Sherr
Swim is a fun and informative glide through the history of swimming with quirky facts, literary references and a smattering of biology. It follows the build up to Sherr swimming across the Hellespont race and made me want to get out for a swim!
9. 'Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora' – Kevin Dawson
With the Black Swimming Association (BSA) highlighting the inequalities in swimming, this is a timely read. Dawson challenges assumptions by studying the history of swimming, surfing, boatmaking and diving in West Africa and in the slave communities in the Americas.
10. 'Achieving the Impossible. A Fearless Hero. A Fragile Earth' – Lewis Gordon Pugh
Pugh explores the mindset and resilience that push him to achieve what others deem impossible. Deeming something impossible seems only to increase his motivation to achieve it.
He swims in the world’s five oceans and at the north pole to raise awareness of the impact of climate change. His story illustrates how changing our own mindsets may help us achieve our own goals.
Conclusion & Further Reading
There are many other great books about swimming that I couldn’t include, so if you are looking for more reading inspiration, try the Serpentine Swimming Club’s reading list which their members compiled. This includes fiction, non-fiction and even books for children.
Happy reading and happy swimming! 🙂
Anna Hattersley has been swimming outdoors year-round for more than ten years, mainly in Devon but elsewhere whenever she gets the chance. She is passionate about sport and the outdoors and sharing this with others. In 2014 she got together with local volunteers and saved her local lido, Ashburton Swimming Pool, from closure. She is still a trustee today.