A Time Magazine Must-Read Book of 2020
A Best Book of the Season: BuzzFeed * Bustle * San Francisco Chronicle
A Best Book of the Year: NPR's Book Concierge * Washington Independent Review of Books
“A fascinating and beautifully written love letter to water. I was enchanted by this book." —Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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 it is about water that seduces us, despite its dangers, and why we come back to it again and again.
About the Author
Bonnie 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. Her website is bonnietsui.com.
Featured in San Francisco Chronicle's 10 books by Bay Area authors that should be on your holiday list”
A Goodreads Science & Technology Award Finalist
“[An] enthusiastic and thoughtful work mixing history, journalism and elements of memoir . . . 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 . . . 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.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"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 cultural history of humankind’s relationship to bodies of water, an exploration of the benefits and dangers of submerging one’s own body in it, a highlight reel of athletic feats of swimming and diving – and so much more. Author Bonnie Tsui creates space for readers to meditate on their own experiences in the water. As I read it I found an escape, but also a connection to the water and to fellow humans who are called to it.”
—NPR's Book Concierge
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
"Tsui is a poetic writer whose flowing, immersive prose and colorful storytelling will hold significant appeal for readers—especially swimmers—of all curiosities.”
“Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a love letter to swimming . . . In the tradition of memoir writers like Rebecca Solnit, Tsui examines the history of swimming as a sport, a survival skill, and even a martial art . . . Her hybrid memoir and history book traces swimming’s roots around the globe while also looking at how a swim can be a meditative, transformative, and deeply personal activity.”
“Why We Swim is a celebration of the many varieties of joy that swimming brings to our oxygen-breathing species.”
“A beautifully written love letter to water and a fascinating story. I was enchanted.”
—Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“The only thing better than reading Bonnie Tsui’s writing about swimming is swimming itself—and both are sublime. Why We Swim is an aquatic tour de force, a captivating story filled with adventure, meditation, and celebration.”
—Susan Casey, New York Times bestselling author of The Wave and Voices in the Ocean
“This is a jewel of a book, a paean to the wonders of water and our place within it.”
—James Nestor, author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves
“Magnificent. Only a truly great story can hold my attention and Why We Swim had me nailed to the chair . . . I love this book."
—Christopher McDougall, bestselling author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes
“Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world's most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won't regret diving in.”
—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity