By Jim McCloskey
Ever since March 20, I’ve been intending to complete the commentary I started on a book about the history of swimming, but other, more time-sensitive topics have gotten in the way. Now, at last, I’m back on track.
As you may recall, Strokes of Genius was written by Eric Chaline, a London-based journalist/sports specialist/coach/author with a unique, detailed approach to his subject matter. I was a bit shy of halfway through it when I declared it a rare treasure: a book of history on an obscure subject that was actually keeping me rivetted.
As I wrote in my March 20 blog, “I’ll finish the book in the next couple days and am counting on it not to disappoint me so much that I’ll end up retracting this possibly premature endorsement. So far, so good!”
Retraction unnecessary. Although the second half of the book isn’t as compelling as the first, the good so far outweighs the less-than-good that I still recommend it. While Chaline wanders a bit as he comes closer to the present, for the most part his coverage held my interest and repeatedly opened my eyes to interesting social, historical and cultural episodes.
Some parts struck me as distractions, including sections of his discussion of ocean swimming and, in particular, his substantial coverage of the history of scuba diving. I grew up swimming in the Pacific and devouring Jacques Yves Cousteau’s televised exploits; heck, I was fascinated by Lloyd Bridges’ weekly subsurface heroism on Sea Hunt, which taught me to treat the kelp beds of Santa Monica Bay with deep suspicion. But in the sort of context Chaline had set up for me, I saw these pages as a technologically based sideshow – maybe a point of departure for a different book I might like to read, but not a line I wanted him to pursue here.
Chaline’s coverage of swimming in the popular media was amusing (his stuff on Patrick Duffy as The Man from Atlantis is deeply amusing, although he somehow missed Sea Hunt along the way), but it was also overlong. And this was true despite the fact he didn’t write enough about Esther Williams and her exceptional influence on popular culture and societal attitudes about swimming (and swimwear).
I very much liked his take on Jeff Wiltse’s impressive volume, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, deepening its messages with a more global view of the evolution of swimming as a social and public phenomenon. But as much of an environmentalist as I am, I found his passages on the great Pacific Ocean garbage patch a bit off target. It’s an important topic generally, but I thought it was misplaced here.
Maybe he just needed a persnickety editor to head him off on these occasions, because much of the rest of the book was just outstanding. I think fondly back to his discussion of how the Roman Empire’s ascendancy 2,300 years ago suppressed the Greeks’ extraordinarily positive view of swimming and for more than a thousand years made water seem more suitable for soaking and bathing than for recreation or competition.
And I was transported by his coverage of books on swimming that date to the 16th Century and smiled broadly when he mentioned that a French swimming instructor, Barthélemy Turquin, gave Parisians their lessons in a pool he floated on the River Seine in 1786 – an idea that seems to be swinging back into vogue all across Europe more than 200 years later.
As an observer of watershaping and someone who has delved into parts of Chaline’s subject matter for more than 30 years, I found the book a general delight peppered with a bunch of little distractions I could have done without. I still endorse it – heartily, in fact – but I feel obliged to alert you that there are episodes along the way that may disappoint you as much as they did me.
All in all, I’d rate it a fine book that could’ve been even better.
To revisit my March 20, 2019, blog on the first half of Eric Chaline’s book, click here.