Leanne Shapton knows how to make a book.
In fact, designing books is what she does.
So it’s no surprise that, like Important Artifacts and Personal Property… her latest, Swimming Studies, is a composite of lovely things. Only this one includes essays—mostly memories from her days as a competitive swimmer—complemented by photos and personal art. The essays, however, are almost incidental.
But not really. The words are certainly important, essential even, but this is what I mean about how she makes a book: it’s not in any way entirely about the words. In fact, I’d say her best writing is inspired by the visual, also by the remembered: smells, sounds, textures, shapes. And much of this she represents in one visual form or another.
Swimming Studies [the cover is cleverly, beautifully done, textbook style] is divided into sections, short pages of text followed by… something. Always something new, unexpected. Very Shapton, this, I’m beginning to realize. ‘Size’, for example, is a series of black and white photos, swimsuits she’s owned with notes on where she purchased them, wore them, who she was with, some small memory: “…My first technical suit. I do a test run in my backyard pool before using at a swim meet in Wilton, Connecticut. It makes me feel more buoyant, but also as if I’ve been swallowed by a boa constrictor.”
In ‘Fourteen Odors’ she offers a series of numbered watercolour sploshes, each number corresponding to the memory of a scent; the wet brick of a parking lot, a teammate’s hair, chlorine mixed with BBQ chips on her finger. Of an exercise partner she notes: “…Tide, milk, terrier, and grape Hubba Bubba.” Of her own wrist, beneath a watch strap: “…Vaseline Intensive Care, iodine and banana.”
This is Shapton at her best—translating the mundane into something that resonates on a large scale, relatable because it’s so real anyone else might overlook it. In no way does she strike me as someone who lives in imaginary places.
If the book has a weakness, it’s a tendency to lean toward the sophomoric in a few essays where a stroll down memory lane feels more self-indulgent than relevant or revelatory. I’d like to say this might just be a taste thing, or an age thing, but I’m not so sure. There’s a difference between presenting your life ‘as is’ because you believe it’s fascinating in itself… or really thinking about what it all means and then presenting that in equally simple ways.
For instance, in the section ‘Other Swimmers’, a series of portraits with notes, she writers under one: “I am not crazy about Stacy since noticing that she copied onto her own shoes the piano keys I drew on the inside of my sneakers.” It’s not that I don’t get it. She’s bringing us into the minutiae of this world, I get it. I just don’t care. Because it’s the same minutiae of any teenaged world. It lacks that je ne sais what—that deeper point that makes the incident special.
It doesn’t help that the entire thing is written in present tense, which gives everything equal intensity and creates pacing that isn’t sustainable. It’s an odd decision, this, and doesn’t suit the subject; not everything about one’s swimming history, however interesting, is that urgent.
Having said that, there is much to adore here. Tiny perfect observations, the reverence for her subject, the movement of bodies, the dedication to sport, the lingering effects, the habit of it all. Essays such as the opening ‘Water’, seven lines that sum up a lifelong passion or, ‘Laundry’, where a recent cold water swim in a London pool triggers a variety of memories from being billeted in an Edmonton basement to the smell of a on-line purchase: “…A detergent-fragrant scarf bought on eBay arrives in the mail and I debate whether to write the seller and ask what brand she washed it in.”
Overall, not a lot to complain about. Throw in a couple of essays written in past tense, a dash of reflection rather than action, and you’d have the necessary balance missing in this otherwise delicious morsel of a read.