Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Paperback)
By William Finnegan
Published May 17th 2016 by Penguin Books
Paperback, 464 pages
I am always watching for new or interesting titles about surfing. One of the things I look for when reading is the authenticity of the story, no matter the genre. So, deciding on the merits of a surfing memoir is difficult for me since I know nothing about the sport. But last year when I read “Barbarian Days” by New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan I was mesmerized. This book is about so much more than surfing even though that is the medium Finnegan uses to tell his story.
When announcing the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer award for biography the board called “Barbarian Days” “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting little-understood art.” This excellent book is now available in a paperback edition.
Sports Illustrated claims ”reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting… but the juice propelling this memoir is wrung from the quest that shaped him…A … coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard.”
Raised in California and Hawaii, during the 1950s and ‘60s, Finnegan started surfing as a child and states: “I did not consider, even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would” and surfing eventually took him around the world. He has chased waves all over the globe, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa. He later went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter.
Literature provides a framework that helps us understand human nature and a person’s life. It is Finnegan’s ability to examine so many of the classic human conflicts that sets “Barbarian Days” apart from a travel or adventure journal. He tackles themes as big as, man against man, man against nature, and, finally, man against himself. He asks serious questions. What are the vulnerabilities of a solitary self, never more alone than on the ledge of a big wave? What of the unavoidable competition among one’s brothers? The impact of the almighty ocean on one’s psyche and character? The self-questioning that attends risk and recklessness?
This is also a book about intense male friendships. He writes: “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.”
Along the trail, he found himself carrying the weight of more than just his backpack and surfboard. On the one hand, “chasing waves in a dedicated way was. . . dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.” On the other, “being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K. In an inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it.”
“Barbarian Days” is certainly a surfing book written for surfers but the clarity and lyrical quality of the prose allows even the most land-locked reader to understand the power and thrill of the big waves and the surfer’s obsession. When Finnegan writes “The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell…is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break” he helps me understand my friends a little better.