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The Book We're Talking About: 'Swimming Studies' By Leanne Shapton

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"Swimming Studies" by Leanne Shapton
Blue Rider Press, $30.00
Published July 5, 2012

What is it about?
Painter and illustrator Leanne Shapton relates with poignancy the details of a competitive swimmer's life: The carpools, the fellow swimmers, the mixed bag of remorse and relaxation that couples quitting. Portions of the work read like a textbook. Shapton chronicles fourteen pool-related scents (a teammate's hair, a sit-up partner, the women's locker room). She photographs the various Speedo suits she donned at the 1992 and 1988 Canadian Olympic Trials, or simply while swimming recreationally. Other portions of the book are more poetic and anecdotal, such as the process of selecting the perfect pair of goggles.

Why are we talking about it?
With the Olympics approaching, this is the perfect read to fill non-athletes in on the rituals, dedication and frequent absurdity of competitive sports. It's beautifully written, beautifully constructed, and thoughtful.

Who wrote it?
Leanne Shapton is the co-owner of J&L Books, a nonprofit specializing in photography and art books. She's also an illustrator and the author of three other books, including "Was She Pretty," a verbal and visual chronicling of ex-girlfriends, "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry," a faux catalog of photographed items, and "The Native Trees of Canada," published by Drawn & Quarterly. She competed in the Canadian Olympic Trials in both 1988 and 1992--breastroke was her specialty.

Who will read it?
Fans of illustrated stories for adults, such as Daniel Handler's "Why We Broke Up." Also, sports fans, and fans of books that comprehensively analyze a single topic, such as Bill Bryson's "Home."

What do the reviewers say?

The New York Times: "The talented illustrator Leanne Shapton, in her pointillistic and quietly profound new memoir, 'Swimming Studies,' recalls how, in 1988 and 1992, specializing in the breaststroke, she made it as far the Canadian Olympic trials. Ms. Shapton writes as confidently as she draws, and memorably conjures swimming’s intense, primordial and isolating pleasures."

The Guardian: "This book is not – as its publishers would have it – a love letter to swimming. It is far more complicated. At times, it comes closer to being the opposite. It is brilliant, eccentric and moving – an immersion in a life."

The Miami Herald: "Some readers may find that 'Swimming Studies' verges on the precious. It’s an adorable book, self-consciously so, a boutique item that cries out to be sold on Etsy and next to the garlic scapes at organic farmers’ markets. But Shapton is so smart and so likable that you will pass her book along to the swimmers in your life. Her experience underscores the truth of a T-shirt slogan she spies at a competition: 'If swimming were any easier, it would be called hockey.'"

Impress your friends:
The first book about swimming was written in 1778 by Nikolaus Wynmann, and was called "The Swimmer or A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming."

Opening line:
"Water is elemental, it's what we're made of, what we can't live within or without."

Notable passage:
Jon and Desmond play with a stopwatch, trying to get as low a time as possible by starting and immediately stopping the clock. They have both hit the same plateau, 00:00:05. I once did 00:00:03, but I stay silent, watching them from the corner of my eye. After two minutes I pull off my headphones and wind the cord around my Walkman. Jon holds out the stopwatch: "You want a go?"

Here are some of Shapton's paintings that are peppered throughout the book:

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