The Joy of Swimming: An Illustrated Celebration of the Water as a Medium of Bodily, Mental, and Spiritual Movement
From the history of the bathing suit to Rumi, a loving homage to aquatic bliss.
By Maria Popova
“The truth is an abyss,” Kafka asserted in contemplating the nature of reality. “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 … to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.” Alan Watts once explained the tenets of Taoism through swimming. More than a philosophical metaphor, the swimming pool is a place of great psychological potency — Oliver Sacks saw swimming as an essential creative stimulant for writing. Indeed, there is something primordially powerful about immersing yourself into the water and propelling yourself into motion and silent thought, the daily bustle of the world left to the land. “As you swim,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her beautiful meditation on leisure and the art of presence, “you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”
In The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water (public library), artist Lisa Congdon explores the innumerable rewards and dimensions of swimming as a conduit of happiness and presence.
From profiles of trailblazers like Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, and everyday swimming aficionados across all walks of life, to curious water-related trivia, to the history of swimming ephemera and architecture, the book is a jubilant ode to our relationship with the water as a medium of bodily, mental, and spiritual movement.
A lifelong swimmer herself, Congdon writes:
It was a beautiful California day during the summer of 1977, and Queen’s “We Are the Champions” was blasting from someone’s boom box. The Shadowbrook Splashers, my childhood swim team, had just won the championship meet. We danced and screamed in victorious revelry — all of us barefoot, nine-year-olds and teenagers alike — our tan bodies clad only in faded team suits, our mouths red from eating cherry-flavored Jell-O blocks. These were the glory days of my childhood: the summers, the morning practices, the swim meets on Saturdays, the smell of chlorine in everything — especially my hair, straw dry and green from pool water.
I lived for summers, and I spent nearly every available minute of them at the swimming pool down the block from my family’s home in a suburban subdivision of San Jose, California’s Almaden Valley. The pool was not only where I swam, but also where, over luxuriously long summer days, I played in the grass, made friends, ate lunch, read books, and where I learned about disco music and flirting and card games. It was where I first became independent and where I first became aware of my physical strength.
The smell of chlorine, the feeling of rough poolside concrete under my bare feet, and the sound of water splashing are all so nostalgic for me that even now I am often transported back to the magic of my childhood simply by closing my eyes.
Complement The Joy of Swimming with Congdon’s field guide to the psychology and practicalities of being an artist and her lovely illustrated homage to Gertrude Stein, then revisit this magnificent read on swimming as an allegory of how our social biases work.
Illustrations © Lisa Congdon courtesy of Chronicle Books
Published April 26, 2016