Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan – 5 stars


I saw the news story announcing that this book had won a Pulitzer prize, and bought the book straight away, amazed that a book about surfing would even get nominated. I figured it had to be good.

And it was.

I have a passing interest in surfing, having tried and failed to grasp the basics of the sport when I lived in Byron Bay. Although I was never any good, the evocative descriptions of the ocean in this book reminded me of why I’d been so desperate to learn in the first place. Finnegan does a fantastic job of translating the intricacies of surfing into something that any reader can understand.

That’s why it’s so deserving of the prize, I think. It reads like a freewheeling, stream of consciousness, autobiographical account of his life, first his childhood in the surfing mecca’s of California and Hawaii, then wave chasing travels in the Pacific Islands and Australia, before he settled back in the States, first in San Francisco, then New York. But unlike some autobiographies, it’s finely crafted, delicately balanced between detailed technical descriptions, philosophical ponderings, and near death wipeouts.

If you read any non-fiction book this year, let it be this one. Like all great books, it has a magic to it, something that turns long descriptions of how a wave breaks in different conditions into poetry, leaving you hanging on Finnegan’s every word, wondering whether he will ever find the perfect wave, wondering if that even matters, commiserating with him as he comes to terms with his ageing body’s limitations, and for me at least, feeling I’ve come as close to the feeling of surfing big waves as anyone could ever get while still on dry land.

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