I was talking with a fellow fan about our audiobook habits when she told me her favorite time to listen was while swimming laps. I’ve yet to take my beach reading from the shore into the lake with me, but with the mercury soaring it may just be time to invest in a waterproof MP3 player and underwater headphones. Here are a variety of natatory — that’s swimming related — audiobooks, to dive into this summer.
Bonnie Tsui’s “Why We Swim” is a standout among a spate of recent titles about the history and culture of swimming, especially when paired with Angie Kane’s pleasing, mellifluous narration. Tsui’s own lifelong love of swimming adds depth to her intriguing stories about our relationship with the watery world, from evidence of prehistoric swimmers to the physiology behind an Icelandic fisherman’s unlikely shipwreck survival. The healing qualities of swimming are evinced by Kim Chambers’ recovery from a debilitating fall to become one of the greatest long-distance swimmers of all time. A seasoned open-water swimmer herself, Tsui is literally immersed in her topic, and Kane conveys this bracing sensory vividness with an enticing relish that may send you running to the nearest pool or lake.
Inspired by John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer,” in which doomed hero Ned Merrill decides to traverse his Long Island suburb by water, from swimming pool to swimming pool, Roger Deakin set out in 1997 to swim across Britain. “Waterlog,” narrated with suitably wonkish enthusiasm by Mike Cooper, is Deakin’s account of his pond-hopping exodus, in which he dives headlong into the historical and literary associations of the various moats, canals, lochs, lakes, rivers and springs along his route. Cooper adds just the right note of wry mischief to this captivating meander across leagues and centuries, with many erudite and entertaining pools and eddies along the way.
Libby Page’s charming novel “The Lido” revolves around the fate of the titular London swimming pool, slated for demolition when Kate, a troubled and shy young reporter, joins forces with octogenarian widow Rosemary, the pool’s oldest living patron, in an attempt to save the beloved local landmark from being privatized by grasping gentrifiers. Clare Corbett deftly personifies various characters from London’s diverse Brixton neighborhood, while conveying the heroines’ journeys with empathy and charm. Swimming seems like the most solitary activity imaginable, but in Page’s wistful, enchanting beach read — as in the memoirs above — we see how such collective ablutions form a very special kind of community.
Julie Otsuka’s moving novella “The Swimmers” begins with that same sense of watery fellowship, as a varied group of individuals gather to find healing and equilibrium in the lanes of an underground pool. But like a menacing crack that suddenly appears and starts to spread across the bottom of the pool, not all maladies can be washed away so easily. Tracy Kato-Kiriyama reads with sensitivity and restraint how Alice, an aging swimmer afflicted with dementia, is increasingly cut adrift on stranger tides uncontained by lane markers. This single-sitting listen is a minor key masterpiece.
One of my favorite audiobooks to share with fans of Daniel James Brown’s popular sports history “The Boys in the Boat” is Julie Checkoway’s equally inspiring underdog story “The Three Year Swim Club,” in which a motley crew of Japanese American “sugar ditch kids” growing up in poverty on Maui plantations are challenged to reach unlikely heights by their starry-eyed coach Soichi Sakamoto, an elementary school teacher who could barely swim. Training in filthy irrigation ditches in the cane fields and faced with innumerable hardships, these seemingly scrawny and undersized competitors emerged on the world stage in pursuit of Olympic gold at the worst possible moment, as the 1940 Tokyo Olympics were canceled when Japan invaded China, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor that had the boys enlisting to fight overseas. Could still more miracles await on the other side of the war? Narrator Alex Chadwick holds our interest throughout with his clear, authoritative rendition of this largely forgotten history, even adding a vintage cadence to commentary from the period.
Memoirs are often best narrated by their authors, but few are quite so good at it as Diana Nyad, who in “Find a Way” takes us along with every stroke of her determined and seemingly doomed quest to become the first person to swim nonstop from Cuba to Florida, despite strong gulf currents, sharks and deadly jellyfish. Nyad’s outcry when describing encounters with the latter of these is truly bloodcurdling, and her physical and psychic anguish when the stinging jellies bring an end to one of her multiple attempts could not be more real. Having written with candor and immediacy about her struggles in and out of the water, Nyad combines her skills as swimmer and sports commentator to create a riveting and deeply inspiring listening experience.