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

Who am I?

For most of my life I’ve been both a writer and a swimmer. I’ve engaged in both activities for many decades, but I’ve always kept the two entirely separate. Write about swimming? Why? What would I say? What was there to say about water and the act of moving through it? It seemed to me that it was a case of “you have to be there,” that writing about swimming would be too removed from the immediacy, the tactility, the floating state of mind. It was only when I discovered works by some truly great writers that I began to see that I could write about my own love of being in water, and how I might go about it.

I wrote...

Growing Old, Going Cold: Notes on Swimming, Aging, and Finishing Last

By Kathleen McDonnell,

Book cover of Growing Old, Going Cold: Notes on Swimming, Aging, and Finishing Last

What is my book about?

Kathleen McDonnell started swimming in Lake Ontario, infamous for its chilly depths, because it was close to her Toronto Island home. Over the years she began to rely on a daily dip, even breaking through winter ice to raise her spirits and refresh her body. In Growing Old, Going Cold she describes immersion in cold water as “the great anti-aging potion ever discovered.” In this wide-ranging memoir, McDonnell shares her love of cold water swimming and some hilarious stories from her watery travels around the globe.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Waterlog: A Swimmers Journey Through Britain

Why did I love 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.

By Roger Deakin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Waterlog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Mother Jones' Best Book of the Year

"A beautiful ode to the act of swimming outdoors. . . . Deakin’s insistence on wild swimming for all is really an insistence on a better ecosystem for all." ―The Atlantic

A masterpiece of nature writing, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog is a fascinating and inspiring journey into the aquatic world that surrounds us.

In an attempt to discover his island nation from a new perspective, Roger Deakin embarks from his home in Suffolk to swim Britain―the seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, pools, streams, lochs, moats, and quarries. Through the watery capillary network that braids…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lynne Cox,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Swimming to Antarctica as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • In this extraordinary book, the world’s most extraordinary distance swimmer writes about her emotional and spiritual need to swim and about the almost mystical act of swimming itself.

Lynne Cox trained hard from age nine, working with an Olympic coach, swimming five to twelve miles each day in the Pacific. At age eleven, she swam even when hail made the water “like cold tapioca pudding” and was told she would one day swim the English Channel. Four years later—not yet out of high school—she broke the men’s and women’s world records for the Channel swim. In 1987,…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everything in Its Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the best-selling author of Gratitude and On the Move, a final volume of essays that showcase Sacks's broad range of interests--from his passion for ferns, swimming, and horsetails, to his final case histories exploring schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer's.

Oliver Sacks, scientist and storyteller, is beloved by readers for his neurological case histories and his fascination and familiarity with human behavior at its most unexpected and unfamiliar. Everything in Its Place is a celebration of Sacks's myriad interests, told with his characteristic compassion and erudition, and in his luminous prose.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Charles Sprawson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Haunts of the Black Masseur as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a masterful work of cultural history, Charles Sprawson, himself an obsessional swimmer and fluent diver, explores the meaning that different cultures have attached to water, and the search for the springs of classical antiquity.
In nineteenth-century England bathing was thought to be an instrument of social and moral reform, while in Germany and America swimming came to signify escape. For the Japanese the swimmer became an expression of samurai pride and nationalism. Sprawson gives is fascinating glimpses of the great swimming heroes: Byron leaping dramatically into the surf at Shelley’s beach funeral; Rupert Brooke swimming naked with Virginia Woolf,…

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why did I love 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.

By John Cheever,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Stories of John Cheever as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John Cheever's Collected Stories explores the delicate psychological frameworks of 20th century suburbia.


This outstanding collection by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Cheever shows the power and range of one of the finest short story writers of the last century. Stories of love and of squalor, they include masterpieces such as 'The Swimmer' and 'Goodbye, My Brother' and date from the time of his honourable discharge from the Army at the end of the Second World War.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in swimming, Manhattan, and philosophy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about swimming, Manhattan, and philosophy.

Swimming Explore 20 books about swimming
Manhattan Explore 105 books about Manhattan
Philosophy Explore 1,307 books about philosophy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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