Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton


Image from here

This is, in its simplest form, an autobiography of Canadian artist and writer Leanne Shapton told through the lens of her teenage years spent as a competitive swimmer. However, this basic description comes nowhere near expressing the depth and scope of this wonderful exploration of the difficulties of navigating the search for meaning in life. Shapton’s series of essays, interspersed with artwork and photography, are on an eclectic mix of topics and move from childhood memories to her modern day existence as a late thirty something artist living in New York. All are connected by her obsession with swimming and the hold it continues to have on her thought processes and interests.

At a young age, Shapton decided to join a local swimming team in her native Toronto alongside her older brother. A hobby soon became an overpowering obsession and her life began to revolve around training, practice and competitions. She would rise before dawn, eat breakfast that had been cooked for the exact time in which she wanted to complete that morning’s lap, and then be driven through the freezing landscape to the local swimming pool. Inside the pool, it was a world apart; a safe cocoon of neon, chlorine and camaraderie. The pursuit of speed became all consuming, but despite making the Canadian Olympic team trials, Shapton knew she would never be good enough to be an Olympian. This realisation that she could not compete with the best was the beginning of the end; but the love of water, swimming and competition never left her. Stopping training didn’t stop the mindset that had led to her achieving at such a high level, and much of Swimming Studies is about how Shapton spends her entire adult life learning how to transition her swimming past into her non swimming present.

This is a meditation on discipline, passion and dedication. Shapton experiences many periods of sadness and confusion in her life,  but these are not, surprisingly, rooted in regret or disappointment that she never made it to the top of her game. She is fascinated by Olympians, but it is clear that she never really wanted to be one herself. Instead, she seeks to understand how to reconcile her desire for rules and routine, honed during those swimming years, with the unpredictability and risks of everyday life. Learning to let go of the controlled and structured world of swimming, which takes place in contained bodies of water and has clear parameters for what is and what is not success, and accept and embrace the undisciplined natures of love, relationships and careers, is a struggle that Shapton will grapple with throughout her twenties and thirties. She tells of holidays and business trips to other countries and cities, where her memories and impressions are linked to the swimming pools she used while there. It is while she swims in these non competitive places that she meditates on her life and motivations, and through the lens of swimming and the lessons it has taught her, she begins to gain clarity about her future.

I started reading this on a whim, and I’m so glad I did; so much of what Shapton expresses about the conflict and confusion of adult life reflects my own experience, and I found what she had to say on the topics of success and ambition both eye opening and inspiring. Our society is obsessed with fame and fortune, celebrity and self promotion. This world view makes it difficult for us to gain perspective and be realistic about the magnitude of our own achievements. It can be easy to become despondent when everyone else seems to be an Olympian and you a mere runner up. But life is not a swimming pool, contained within four walls and measured in laps and tenths of seconds. It is an ocean; unfathomably deep, wide and changeable, and completely unable to be controlled by human hands. It is only when we stop trying to direct our course that our path becomes clear; as Shapton discovers by the end of this evocative, thought provoking and touching autobiography, letting go brings freedom, and ultimately, freedom is the greatest achievement of all.


  1. mary says:

    I got half way through this and didn’t exactly get bored, but wasn’t sufficiently engaged to finish it. (Translation: it fell under the bed and I didn’t bother rescuing it.) I far preferred Important Artifacts etc etc which was quirky and unusual.

  2. bookssnob says:

    Hahaha! I think I was in the exact right mindset to read it – if I hadn’t have been, then I think I would have drifted off too! And been more annoyed at the obviously luxurious lifestyle she leads. I loved Important Artifacts – I’m going to give it a re-read, actually!

  3. Heather says:

    Mm, yes – I read this book last year and was in just the right mood for it, too. I found it incredibly satisfying – the mix of description and introspection, the exploration of ambivalence, and, like you say, the way it’s a meditation on discipline, passion, etc.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it too, Heather – I thought it was a very interesting and thoughtful book, the like of which perhaps don’t ordinarily get published. It was a real pleasure to read – though perhaps in a different mood I might have found it more self indulgent!

  4. Frances says:

    I’m always really interested in Leanne Shapton’s work – I also loved ‘Important Artifacts…’ was so very clever and moving – but haven’t had the chance to read this yet. I suggested it to a girl at work who used to be a competitive swimmer in the States and she said it was amazing at arousing lost memories, the smells, the sounds and the rituals of that world. I think I almost felt it would be too niche for me. But having read your review I’m encouraged to read it again, it sounds like what you describe of how it captures the confusion of adult life – and how it offers an inspiring take on the idea of success of ambition – could really chime with me too. It’s moving up the ‘To Read’ pile, thank you!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Frances, you should definitely give it a try – no swimming knowledge required! It’s much more about finding your way in the world than it is about swimming. If you loved Important Artifacts then I’m almost certain you’ll enjoy this.

  5. Blighty says:

    Oh this sounds intriguing, have never heard of this author (blushes with embarrassment), thanks for putting me on notice. Maybe I should start with Artifacts first…

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