Sunday, August 20, 2006

Swimming to Antarctica

I took half an hour off earlier this evening (I had an extremely productive day, though I fear I am about to go temporarily AWOL and read a novel) to read a slender and altogether attractive book, Lynne Cox's Grayson, which tells the story of Cox's encounter (when she was an already world-famous seventeen-year-old long-distance swimmer) with a baby gray whale who had temporarily lost his mother.

It's a modest story, told in unassuming language (occasionally the prose becomes flat or overly naive, and there are a few inspirational sentences here and there that I would have Xed out if I were in charge), but I cannot imagine who will not be struck and delighted by its absolutely lovely vision of things. (Well, perhaps that's part of it being a bit too idealistic--and you have to be a staggeringly good writer to get away with the lines about positive thinking, sending thoughts to the mother whale, etc. without making the reader's eyes roll a little, even the sympathetic reader.) And yet with all these caveats I still absolutely loved it; I think it's a little too slow-paced to work for actual reading aloud to a child, but it would make a great one to retell in nightly installments, and I also can imagine a gorgeous spinoff picture-book....

I read Cox's Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer a few years ago, and absolutely loved it, it really is genuinely inspiring and I think everyone should read it, particularly if you've taken on a big project (a dissertation!) that you're finding rather daunting. Here's a short excerpt from the New Yorker article that was also one of the book chapters; take a look and you'll see what I mean, she's got this very calm and joyful way of approaching near-impossible tasks that really makes me happy when I think about it.

There's some wonderfully good writing in Grayson about various sea creatures, but best of all are the descriptions of the baby whale's movement through the water (you can really hear Cox watching and thinking about her own swimming, it's very cool--I want her to write an essay that talks in more technical ways about the actual swimming stuff, I think she must be one of those writers who needs some steering in order for her prose to come to life, she's got so much to say that I hope she writes more books):

His head moved won into the water, the top of it tracing a U. His body followed his head until he reached the bottom of the U, then he slightly arched his back and did an enormous kick with his fluke. That kick thrust his body forward and he slid through the water cleanly with a circle of tiny waves surrounding his upper body. His dolphin kick was beautiful and efficient, and he was totally balanced in the water.

He swam the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen, but instead of pulling his flippers up over his head, which he wasn't built to do, he kept his pectoral flippers by his sides, using them for steering and turning. He deepened the sideways U by diving deeper with the thrust of his fluke.

Oh, and on a related note, David Foster Wallace has an interesting essay about Roger Federer and the nature of athletic genius in this Sunday's NYT magazine. (Thanks to Ed for the recommendation, I had clicked on it earlier but almost on principle I do not like reading those multi-page Times stories unless the first installment is absolutely gripping; I was glad, though, when I went back and read through all the segments, there were some parts I'd hate to have missed.)

This is the kind of sports-writing I most admire: when I taught composition classes in grad school, I did a unit on cultural criticism that was actually almost entirely sports-related (and it was just as well, about 95% of the students in the particular class I'm thinking of were athletes, this was a good way of meeting on middle ground since I am sorry to say I know virtually nothing about any sport). Hazlitt's remarkable essay "The Indian Jugglers" is the classic exemplar, but there's a ton of other good stuff (I remember I had Bill Buford on football hooligans, Nick Hornby on the psychology of fandom, C. L. R. James on cricket and a very appealing essay by Malcolm Gladwell on physical genius).


  1. an odd link here, but only one word diferent... Skating to Antartica by Jenny Diski. Fantastic piece of autobiograpy/memoir...

  2. My children, aged 5 and 6, love Grayson. We are reading it aloud as a family book, and they are enthralled by the story, as well as quite able to listen to the marine biology content. Looking forwards to hearing Lynne Cox talk on January, 20th in San Diego.
    So ... I would recommend it as a read aloud book.