Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim, an enthusiastic and thoughtful work mixing history, journalism and elements of memoir, is ostensibly focused on those who do swim, rather than those who don’t. 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 ... This is more of a quick dip than a comprehensive history of swimming, but it’s still full of good information ... Tsui is commendably transparent about her methods, but there are times when that gives Why We Swim the tone of a book report, one where the writer likely had travel limitations based on budget ... 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 ...
... succeeds brilliantly ... In theory, Tsui’s globe- and topic-hopping structure could make the book seem scattered. But the breadth of her reporting and grace of her writing make the elements of Why We Swim move harmoniously as one ... deepens from informative and entertaining to transcendent and moving ... There’s a poignancy to the fact that Why We Swim arrives just as COVID-19 has made so many bodies of water, from public swimming pools to beaches, off limits. But you can read it to remember just how good a swim can feel on a hot summer day and dream about when that day will come.
Profiles of Olympic swimmers, long distance swimmers, and others who swim in brutally cold water for therapeutic reasons punctuate the text, in addition to Tsui’s own lifelong experiences in water. In all, Why We Swim is a celebration of the many varieties of joy that swimming brings to our oxygen-breathing species. That we choose to swim, knowing the danger, can only be explained by the pleasure it brings.
Deep within this book is this hint of a personal family memoir as told through the great swimming escapades of her life ... reading the book you can’t but feel that there is a vital personal memoir locked within. But it’s not the book she set out to write here. While Tsui’s personal relationship with water is a guiding tread through oceans and thousands of years, the book itself is almost structureless from chapter to chapter ... It’s definitely a book for swimming nerds but also easily accessible for anyone with an interest in water. That 372,000 people die from drowning each year is one of the most sobering statistics in a book that is crowded with numbers and facts without being weighed down.
... closely researched and entertaining ... Toggling between swimmers’ personal anecdotes and researched reportage, Tsui has accumulated an impressive trove of information on the history of swimming, generously interspersed with references to important cultural works ... Tsui is at her most eloquent and engaging when she meditates upon the myriad ways swimming has shaped her life ... The descriptions of her diving for abalone, competing in swim meets as a youth, and setting out for her first swim across the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz are poignant and evocative, pulling the reader along in a current of vivid prose.
... a thoughtful and meditative contemplation, and an exploration and memoir about her own relationship with water ... Tsui spends time writing about water’s meditative qualities—its flow—and it’s here where her own writing shines.
... eloquent ... A lifelong swimmer, Tsui deftly moves from one topic to another, weaving in her personal experiences ... Fascinating highlights ... 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.
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.