Swimming Studies

Leanne Shapton

The best adjective I’ve seen so far to describe this book is “pointillistic,” as it was described in The New York Times review. Invariably “quietly” will qualify other descriptors, which rightfully suggests it’s a tricky book to recommend to others, especially if you don’t know how it fits in with their usual reading choices. I recently found myself in conversation with someone who revealed her history of competitive swimming and I asked if she’d read this book, then obviously failed to capture its interest potential in one sentence. But we continued talking about swimming and as someone else joined the conversation, the new person immediately asked, “Oh, have you read Swimming Studies?” Between the two of us, we were able to encouragingly outline it.

Due to Shapton’s art background, this is as much of a visual exploration of swimming as a personal memoir. Amidst the text are various explorations in watercolors and photography: pools, bathing suits, smells. This is one book I imagine is better, conceptually speaking at least, in physical book form, if only for how the blue-tinted section on bathing suits provides a swimming-lane-esque stripe down the fore edge of the book.

Swimming Studies is decidedly introspective. You know at the beginning that Shapton did not make it beyond the Olympic trials, but you will quickly see this is not a trajectory focused on wins or losses. It’s a process-oriented look at the rigor of training, obsessive routines, as well as Shapton’s desire to belong being more specific than the desire to succeed in the expected way. There’s maybe a bit of wondering about unrealized potential, but overall the book is more about her experience as a swimmer throughout her life and how it reflects onto her life as an artist. It’s probably worth recommending to anyone who practices some sort of discipline.