One of our recommended books is Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

WHY WE SWIM


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

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 natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, 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 palace pool,

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

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 natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, 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 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 about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.

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  • Algonquin
  • Hardcover
  • April 2020
  • 288 Pages
  • 9781616207861

Buy the Book

$26.95

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About Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui is the author of Why We SwimBonnie 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.

Author Website

Praise

“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 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 Review

“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

Discussion Questions

1. Why We Swim is a blend of memoir, journalism, history, and science. Which of these elements resonated most with you? Do you think they all work together successfully?

2. This book is about swimming, but it is also about something more elemental: our relationship with water, and how we don’t know how to swim from birth—we humans have to teach ourselves how to survive in it. Have you ever had to swim for survival, or feared for your life in water?

3. Once we learn to swim for survival, swimming can be about so much more: well-being, community, competition, flow. What is your own relationship with swimming? Did this book change your thinking about it?

4. Unlike land-based activities, swimming takes us quite literally out of our element and puts us in a new one. Long-distance swimmers speak of “sea-dreaming.” What are the ways that being in a buoyant environment can free your mind? Are there other examples in which a change in environment creates a fresh perspective?

5. Tsui notes that swimming encourages a return to play—diving, cannonballing, pretending to be a mer-creature—that we often lose sight of as adults. Do you see this in yourself, or in the children you know, when you are in water? Why do you think that happens?

6. Jay Taylor spent two years teaching swim lessons in a combat zone in Baghdad. For him, swimming helped create community in a dangerous place. Do you have a community at a pool, beach, or lake that you frequent? Has it helped you get through any particularly difficult times?

7. Kim Chambers was motivated to swim as an adult, as therapy to recover from a traumatic injury. From a quest for well-being came community and competition and flow. Have you ever been prescribed swimming to recover from an injury? Did it work?

8. Why We Swim investigates a number of little-known stories about swimming, including samurai swimming—the Japanese swimming martial art—and the sea nomads of Southeast Asia. What were your favorite new discoveries about swimming and the cultural practices around it?

9. Franz Kafka wrote, “The truth is always an abyss. One must—as in a swimming pool—dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again—laughing and fighting for breath—to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.” Why do you think so many writers are also swimmers?

10. Share a favorite line or passage from the book. Why does it stand out, and what is your takeaway from it?

Excerpt

The Water Cure

While posted in London in the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin swam daily in the Thames. The cold bath was a corrective much in vogue, and the scientist, inventor, and all-around Renaissance man was an avid skinny-dipper for much of his long life. Brits at the time suffered from what one writer has called “a mess of maladies . . . fevers, digestive complaints, melancholia, nervous tics, tremors, and even stupidity were the epidemics of the day.” The new wonder drug prescribed for the nasty health effects of urban living? Cold seawater. And thus the English seaside resort was born—not for sun worshipping or frolicking, but for dunking oneself in the cold miracle cure of the ocean. It was the collective baptism of a country.

Back across the pond, water therapy became big business in nineteenth-century America. Public distrust of the medical establishment led to the fervent adoption of the water cure for everything from broken bones to typhus. There was even a hydropathic medical school, opened in New York City in 1851. By the outbreak of the Civil War, more than two hundred water cure clinics were operating around the country, and a journal dedicated to the subject had tens of thousands of subscribers.

“Water cure patients sat in water, submerged themselves in water, stood under water as it was poured over them, wore wet compresses, wrapped themselves in dripping sheets, and ate a meager diet washed down, of course, with water,” writes one historian of the practices. It was water, water everywhere—mostly for immersion but sometimes to drink. (The prescription of eight glasses of water a day is a relic from this time.) Cold water was proclaimed the sovereign remedy for every ailment. Dunk your head in it for a fever! Sniff it for a nosebleed! Take a cold mouth-bath to cure yourself of the filthy habit of tobacco chewing and restore a healthy salivary flow!

Swimming was critical to the water cure. In the eight-volume Hydropathic Encyclopedia, published circa 1851, the “swimming-bath” is prescribed as “health preserving” and “hygienic” for all persons, but also as “eminently therapeutic in some forms of chronic disease.” As I flip through the encyclopedia’s five hundred plus pages, I find its exhaustive discussions of river, sponge, and wave baths to be both mind-numbing and fascinating. Whether you were weak in the lungs from tuberculosis or suffering from chronic constipation, swimming would help—to strengthen and open up the lungs, to get those lax abdominal muscles going and (ahem) move things along. Pamphlets rained down on the public prescribing saltwater swims for longevity.

Our trust in water as a cure-all goes back to the ancients. Egyptian royals bathed in water laced with essential oils, and Chinese and Japanese traditions extolled the medicinal effects of thermal springs. The Greeks went deep in their examination of every type of water therapy. Euripides wrote that “the sea restores men’s health”—with great personal gratitude, since he was allegedly cured of rabies with a near drowning in the ocean. Called the “sailors’ method,” this combination of water and asphyxia was a celebrated ancient treatment for the disease. One symptom of rabies is hydro-phobia, and it was thought that a timely application of water would cure it. (Euripides notwithstanding, it did not prove to be an effective remedy.) Hippocrates and Aristotle were big fans of hot seawater baths. Romans would soak in hot water pools, then hop into the frigidarium—a bracing cold-water bath—to close the pores and leave bathers refreshed at the end of the regimen.

For most of this history of immersing our bodies in water for wellness, proponents didn’t know exactly what they were talking about when it came to why. But they knew what felt good.