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Non Fiction

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

After the high of the London Olympics I think many people including myself seems to experience some form of Olympics hangover. The after party experience after such a high adrenaline pumping sports events. This Olympic is different from the rest purely because it happened in the city where I worked, so it felt closer to me than the other Olympics have not in the past.

For the first week of the Olympic, I was glued to my TV in the evening watching the swimming events. I admit I hold an unreasonable awe for people who can swim laps and laps and swim competitively. I am not a good swimmer and I hate to say this, I am afraid of the water and when I was younger, nothing my parents say or do would persuade me to put my head under the water because it feels like I am drowning every time I do that…. (Is there anyone out there who feels the same? ;)) As I grew up I overcome the fear of water gradually but all I can swim right now is backstroke. Yup, the only stroke that doesn’t require my head to be submerged under the water. lol 😀

While we cheer and praise the ones who have made it to the pinnacle, there are hundreds who lost the gold medals by mere hundredth of seconds and by less than one point in score or struck down by last minute injury. Those are the forgotten ones. or who, like Leanne Shapton, were good, but not good enough.

Shapton spent her youth as a competitive swimmer. She went to two Olympic trials. She never qualified and eventually gave up full-time competitive swimming.

Swimming Studies is not a typical sports memoir. Rather, it is the memoir of an artist who used to be a swimmer – an artist trying to find a place in her life and reflect and ponder upon the disciplined mindset of competitive sport that consumed most of her growing up years and how she could use that mindset and apply it to her present life.

The book contains Shapton’s watercolours art, punctuate the writing, 24 blurry renditions of a swimmer moving through water; 14 splodges of colour that represent odours she remembers from childhood (never knew odour has colour, but Shapton had me thinking!); 23 sketches of the view from a hotel room in Vals. The repetitive nature of these studies seems to mirror the rhythms of repetitive training laps.

I recalled during my school years I would be given an essay topic and expect to write 5,000 words about it. I like it, I have endless ideas about one topic that I could talk about. This is what Shapton does. She took one topic that is dear to her heart “Swimming” and she talks about it, she talks around it, and eventually and possibly talk herself out of an obsession that she couldn’t let go.

She talks about her competition meets, her parents’ sacrifice and support for her training, her experience of dipping into the water in cold wintry months of Toronto, about swimming in different places and about her swimwear. There are collection of Shapton’s swimwear throughout her lifetime and you can see some colour pictures on the Paris Review blog, which cannot be seen on my book as they are limited to gray scale.

I never like short stories but I am perfectly alright with reading inconsequential thoughts about life and reflects on it. This is what this book did to me, I read many of Shapton thoughts and I for queer reasons relate to it. There are moments of triumph but there are also moments of pain.

Imagine the realisation that life is not always about winning:

“Watching him (Shapton’s husband) in the waves. I realise he doesn’t see life as rigor and deprivation. To him it’s something to enjoy where the focus is not on to how to win , but how to flourish – in both the literal and superficial sense. I can understand flourishes, the conceptual, the rare, the inspired and the fantastic. James introduces me to the idea of bathing.” – page 136.

Comparing Rafael Nadal’s (the professional tennis player) pain to hers:

It was as though pain on land was there to remind to get back in the water, where, after a certain threshold, the pain went away. For an athlete pain is not a deterrent, because the only place the pain will be eclipsed is in practice or in competition. – page 224

Shapes of swimming pools that Shapton had ever swum in.

Do I have the a long term goal? If anything, it’s to figure out what to do with something I do well but no longer have any use for…. Watching the event strokes of my masters teammates, I wonder whether they question what they’re doing as much as I do. I’m used to hearing artists and writers question what they do; self-loathing, doubt and mental blocks are par for the course. Athletes may wince at muscle pain but generally don’t articulate their struggles. We respect them because they suck it up. They just do it. – page 251.

When I was offered a review copy of Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, I honestly didn’t know what to expect at the beginning. After reading it, I was affected by it (thank you Karen at Penguin UK for the book!). Shapton’s writing is honest and touching. It is not all about swimming, it is also about falling in love, disappointment, it is about growing up, it is about fond memory of the rhythms of family life and it is about life looking through the lense of a keen swimmer. I have several afterthoughts and reflections about each chapter after I put the book down. It is hard for me to sum up in a few words but the book touched me, it delighted me, it made me smile, I learnt a thing or two about the technicality of swimming and the rules of competition, it made me want to read it again,  it made me went online and reserve her copy of  Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry; it made me want to learn to be a better swimmer and to a certain extent (as I am not easily swayed!) made me want to be a better person.

A very unusual book from what I would normally read. Highly recommended.


Hardback. Publisher: Penguin 2012; Length: 320 pages; Setting: Toronto, Canada, USA and around the world. Source: Publisher review copy. Finished reading on the 11th August 2012.

About the writer / artist:

Leanne Shapton is a Canadian artist and graphic novelist, now living in New York. Her second work, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, has been optioned for a film slated to star Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman. The novel, which takes the form of an auction catalog, uses photographs and accompanying captions to chronicle the romance and subsequent breakup of a couple via the relationship’s significant possessions or “artifacts”.

Shapton’s first work, Was She Pretty?, was a nominee for the Doug Wright Award, a Canadian award for comics and graphic novels, in 2007. It explored, via a series of line-drawn illustrations, the issues of relationship jealousy and feminine insecurity as told through the imagined superior traits of the subjects’ boyfriends’ exes.

Shapton is also an art director for newspapers and magazines. Formerly associated with Saturday Night, Maclean’s and the National Post in Canada, she has worked as art director for the op-ed page at The New York Times. She has created hand lettering for a number of book covers, including Chuck Palahniuk’s 2003 novel Diary. She is also a partner in J&L Books.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


10 thoughts on “Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

  1. It’s always good to read outside the comfort zone. I’m not a big fan of swimming (I am a dreadful swimmer and always have been) but it sounds like there’s a lot more to the book than just swimming.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | August 20, 2012, 2:56 pm
  2. This would normally not be a book I’d pick up. But you have shown us a peek of this memoir’s contents, it makes you wonder what else is in this quaint book. I’m not a very enthusiastic swimmer and just like you I’ve had a few moments of doubt… I even tried taking advanced swimming lessons a few years ago, but I felt so anxious… had to quit them. What motivates a swimmer and what exactly is the mysterious attraction of swimming? 🙂

    Posted by Chinoiseries | August 23, 2012, 3:58 pm
    • Chinoiseries,
      I don’t understand a swimmer’s motivation either. The same as I don’t understand a runner’s need to run everyday. I don’t like mundane, repetitive sports so I play badminton, basketball, board games etc… (if the last one is considered a sport! lol) I like thinking sport. Strategy sports.

      I felt Shapton writes like one of those Taiwanese writers. Short chapter, “san wen”, I like it. When I was younger I read a lot of “san wen”. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | August 23, 2012, 8:03 pm
  3. I saw a piece in the guardian about this ,clever way to write a memoir I think ,I loved olympics missing it but paralympics start soon ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | August 23, 2012, 5:53 pm
  4. I have this book to read too. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, and love how you’ve presented your review too. Nice to find your site (via a post on Farm Lane Books).

    Posted by Lindsay | September 11, 2012, 1:20 pm


  1. Pingback: Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton « JoV's Book Pyramid - September 15, 2012

  2. Pingback: August – Sept 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - October 12, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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