On Leanne Shapton’s “Swimming Studies”

by Thomas Brett

“Swimming is my disembodied youth, yet I am rapidly becoming the embodied present.”
Swimming Studies, (187)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton is one of the more poetically precise and evocative non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It’s a meditative memoir consisting of a series of autobiographical vignettes, illustrations, and photographs that explore the author’s experience swimming competitively as a child and recreationally as an adult in pools around the world.  Shapton, an illustrator and author, qualified for the Canadian Olympic trials as a teenager, and much of her book looks back on this time in her life through its textures of experience. Over the course of thirty brief (6- to 15-page) chapters–”Practice”, “Etobicoke”, “Goggles”, Swimming Pool”–she dissects a personal past and present in and around swimming and water, chronicling a life by remembering an old self through the prism of the present.

Swimming Studies is a celebration of many small yet acute observations–such as noticing tile designs on a pool floor, the look on someone’s face, a frozen landscape seen from a moving bus, the feeling of hearing a piece of music while being driven to early morning swim practice, or the sensation of moving through water. Here, for example, is Shapton explaining what it means to have a “feel” for the water: “It’s a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is a what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element–the springing shudder a cat makes when you touch its back” (210). Elsewhere, Shapton elaborates on what she calls the “metaphysical” aspect of swimming. “The body immersed” she says, “feels amplified, heavier and lighter at the same time. Weightless yet stronger” (188).

In celebrating small observations, much of Swimming Studies examines how memory–that force that links the past with the present–can be triggered by sights, sounds, and especially, scents. In the chapter “Fourteen Odors”, Shapton provides an inventory of over a dozen different odors through thumb-sized watercolor designs and short text descriptions. For example, number 13 (an orange-ish blot) reads all of seven words: “Fingernail: Chlorine, barbecue potato chip, wool mitten.” At first glance, such brief observations seem pithy. But then you find yourself trying to recreate the nexus of scents in your mind as you read. (I do remember wool mitten scents, actually.) A good deal of Swimming Studies‘ minimalist approach works like this: revealing just enough to get the reader imagining along.

Shapton’s inventories pop up again in “Size”, a chapter that features a series of photographs of bathing suits the author has purchased and used over the years in various places. The suits are displayed, one by one, on a mannequin torso–photo of the suit on one page, detailed description of the circumstances of its acquisition on the facing page. It’s here that Shapton’s artistic approach is felt in how she systematically dissects a physical artifact taken from her life. After fifteen pages or so, the photos and descriptions begin their work, drawing you into Shapton’s lived history while maintaining a kind detached objectivity. The catalog-like layout works precisely because it’s at once personal yet distant. Kind of like an art exhibit.

***

I enjoy books that grow out of a writer’s deeply felt understanding of an activity, a process, a craft, or way of experiencing the world. (For example, see Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, Matthew B. Crawford’s practical-philosophical Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and David Abram’s ecstatic phenomenology of perception and the senses, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology.) For me, the key in these kinds of autobiographical non-fiction works is how the author renders his or her experiences on the page as well as the clarity of the descriptions, reflections, and analyses. By these measures, Shapton’s Swimming Studies is pitch perfect, its content matching its form and vice versa. I came away from it not only feeling that I gotten to know a thoughtful stranger with interesting things to say (“You can’t choose what you’re good at, but does that mean you should do it?”, p.252), but that I had also learned something about our potential for understanding with all of our senses the worlds we live in. Meaning: if you can’t write it, draw it, or take a photograph. Just capture it, somehow. In sum, Swimming Studies conveys the sensibility of someone well attuned to the resonances of her own life and that’s what makes the book well worth reading.

And oh yeah: What exactly, you ask, is the music connection here? Well, I thought that with a title so tantalizingly close to Drumming Studies (just substitute “dru” for “swi”) and a book cover image (of a blue swim cap) that looks, to my biased eye, like a drum head already, how could this book not be musical in some way?

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