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Cover for Why We Swim

Why We Swim

Bonnie Tsui


List Price: 26.95*
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Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (4/13/2021)
MP3 CD (4/14/2020)
Compact Disc (4/14/2020)


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 ConciergeWashington 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.

Praise For Why We Swim

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.”
Outside Magazine

“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.”
Kirkus Reviews

“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.”
Publishers Weekly

"Tsui is a poetic writer whose flowing, immersive prose and colorful storytelling will hold significant appeal for readers—especially swimmers—of all curiosities.”
Shelf Awareness

“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.”
Foreword Reviews

 “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

Algonquin Books, 9781616207861, 288pp.

Publication Date: April 14, 2020

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

Conversation Starters from

1. Why We Swim is a blend of memoir, journalism, history, and science. Which of these elements resonated most with you? Do you think they all work together successfully?

2. This book is about swimming, but it is also about something more elemental: our relationship with water, and how we don’t know how to swim from birth—we humans have to teach ourselves how to survive in it. Have you ever had to swim for survival, or feared for your life in water?

3. Once we learn to swim for survival, swimming can be about so much more: well-being, community, competition, flow. What is your own relationship with swimming? Did this book change your thinking about it?

4. Unlike land-based activities, swimming takes us quite literally out of our element and puts us in a new one. Long-distance swimmers speak of “sea-dreaming.” What are the ways that being in a buoyant environment can free your mind? Are there other examples in which a change in environment creates a fresh perspective?

5. Tsui notes that swimming encourages a return to play—diving, cannonballing, pretending to be a mer-creature—that we often lose sight of as adults. Do you see this in yourself, or in the children you know, when you are in water? Why do you think that happens?

6. Jay Taylor spent two years teaching swim lessons in a combat zone in Baghdad. For him, swimming helped create community in a dangerous place. Do you have a community at a pool, beach, or lake that you frequent? Has it helped you get through any particularly difficult times?

7. Kim Chambers was motivated to swim as an adult, as therapy to recover from a traumatic injury. From a quest for well-being came community and competition and flow. Have you ever been prescribed swimming to recover from an injury? Did it work?

8. Why We Swim investigates a number of little-known stories about swimming, including samurai swimming—the Japanese swimming martial art—and the sea nomads of Southeast Asia. What were your favorite new discoveries about swimming and the cultural practices around it?

9. Franz Kafka wrote, “The truth is always an abyss. One must—as in a swimming pool—dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again—laughing and fighting for breath—to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.” Why do you think so many writers are also swimmers?

10. Share a favorite line or passage from the book. Why does it stand out, and what is your takeaway from it?

Coverage from NPR