A quick book review on ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’

So I thought for this feature I’d give a book review a go. More specifically, a surf book!

It is almost impossible for any aspiring surfer not to end up accruing at least two or three surf books on their dusty, crooked driftwood bookshelf. Maybe a few Carve Magazines too if your British, Zigzags if your South African, or one of the many ones they sell in oz.  And whilst my bookshelf is in fact not driftwood (couldn’t find any) I myself have a few paperbacks kicking around, so I thought I’d ramble about one of my current favourites.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

On the whole, and I am going to make sweeping generalisations here, surf literature isn’t known to be particularly groundbreaking. That is, until the recent release of ‘Barbarian Days’ last year, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the best Biography. I actually first heard of this book through a podcast by Surf Simply, which is a bunch of English and American guys and girls who run a surf resort in Costa Rica. I was sat on a National Express bus in England (perhaps perched, squashed, or wedged, may better describe that particular journey) and they were running an interview with the author, William Finnegan. He seemed like a down to earth chap and the book sounded just up my street, so like all good boyfriends do- instead of buying it for myself I bought it as a gift to my girlfriend for Christmas (then not so secretly repatriated it at the first available opportunity).

The book charts ‘Bill’s’ journey not only around the world, but through life from an early age up until present day. He is quite frank and honest about his highs and lows during these years, his moments of triumph (and also low moments!) and somehow has this amazing ability to give the reader a feel for the place, without delving into too much detail on his surroundings. He describes surfing as a thread through his life, and it is indeed throughout the book. He grew up between California and Hawaii, but not at the main and most popular breaks which makes for a really interesting read. He points out at during the book that for the most part of his life, there was no reliable surf forecasting whatsoever which is amazing to someone like me who hasn’t been surfing for very long. He talks of camping with friends, and scoring great swells by simply being there at the right time (this happens for him in Hawaii, but most notably on an Island in Indonesia where him and his friend spend weeks waiting for decent waves).

Sorry I know this is repeated from the cover photo, I’ve just ran out of photo ideas for a book review :/ I presume that is William Finnegan in the foreground, and some random mate with a serious tash chilling on the side
I found the book strangely relatable too. In particular, the endless worry and guilt of not delving into a career like your friends and peers, all of whom seem to be settling down and buying. Its nice to know someone else went through that, and especially because he felt like he wasn’t doing anything special with his time whilst he was grappling with these thoughts (or so it seemed!).

He travels extensively during his twenties and thirties, before living in South Africa for a year (or two? Sorry the book isn’t to hand!) and teaching during the apartheid. This was a fascinating section, and since reading Barbarian days I have actually been purchased a book he wrote about journalism during the Apartheid too (highly recommend). He then spends a long period of time surfing the freezing cold waters off San Francisco, and then moved finally to New York where he is today.

I would recommend this book to anyone! It is a bit of a long read, and took me a couple of weeks to get through- but it is so well written that I was drawn in from start to finish. I felt happy and amazed by his feats and when he caught big waves, and I felt saddened when he spoke about his parents passing and the pains of growing old. I know it sounds cliché, but I’m not sure I will ever read a book quite like that again (in length or stature) however it has certainly opened my eyes to different destinations to travel.

I am planning on doing a book review on a couple of others I have too, including ‘Stoked!’ which is the autobiography of the South African big wave surfer, Chris Bertish, charting his life moving around the place and **spoiler alert** eventually going on to win the Mavericks invitational in 2010. I also am hoping to write about a couple of books written by Tom Anderson, who is a welsh surfer who has done quite a bit of surf travel, and has written one account about surf chasing around the world (‘Riding the Magic Carpet’) and one where he journeys around the UK (‘Grey Skies, Green Waves’).



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