The best books about swimming for people who aren’t competitive swimmers

The Books I Picked & Why

Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

By Roger Deakin

Book cover of Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

Why this book?

In the opinion of many water-lovers, Roger Deakins basically invented the swim memoir or “swimoir.” In the nineties, he set out on a year-long journey through the waterways of Britain, on a quest to experience life in what he called a “feral state.” His primary drive is to get into the water, to fully experience it rather than conquer it, to become part of the water and vice versa. His specialty is distance, rather than speed. Competitive swimmers keep their heads down to maximize speed, but not Deakins. His head is up, looking at his surroundings and the abundant wildlife around him. Waterlog was a major inspiration for my own book, as it’s been for many writers – swimmers or not.


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Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer

By Lynne Cox

Book cover of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer

Why this book?

Lynne Cox is one of the world’s most extraordinary distance swimmers, and she’s also a remarkable writer. In this, her first book, she writes about her emotional connection to water, her spiritual need to swim, as well as recounting the many challenges she faced in her successful crossing of the Bering Strait – not the least of which was the 38F water temperature. I was truly honored when Lynne agreed to write a testimonial for my book.


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Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

By Oliver Sacks

Book cover of Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

Why this book?

Everyone knows who the late Oliver Sacks is, and his extraordinary books have been read by millions. But not many know about Sacks’ great love of swimming, which he first wrote about in “Water Babies,” a beautiful personal essay published in The New Yorker in 1997. I had an “aha!” moment when I first read this essay, in my realization that Sacks and I were kindred water spirits, and that it was possible to write about swimming in a way that would engage readers of all stripes. 


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Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero

By Charles Sprawson

Book cover of Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero

Why this book?

This book is packed with fascinating, dramatic, and sometimes bizarre tales of swimming lore from history and literature. Sprawson is also fascinated with the swimming world’s legacy to Hollywood in the thirties and forties, exploring the careers of “aquamusical” star Esther Williams and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who starred in a dozen Tarzan movies. Sprawson’s reputation as a literary writer about swimming is second only to that of Roger Deakins. What gives the book a strange fascination for many people is the fact that after the publication of Haunts of the Black Masseur, Sprawson never wrote another one.


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The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why this book?

Not only is Cheever’s "The Swimmer" part of the “canon” of literary works about swimming, it’s widely considered one of the greatest works of short fiction. He frames the journey as an Odyssey with all the classical echoes that suggests. The protagonist, Ned Merrill, decides to swim back to his home through the pools of his suburban neighbors, a journey that starts out as a lark and slowly turns into a descent into hell. In truth, the story is less about swimming than suburban life in the 1950s, but it packs a powerful punch.


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