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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life Hardcover – July 21, 2015

4.5 out of 5 stars 539 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“How many ways can you describe a wave? You’ll never get tired of watching Finnegan do it. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he leads a counterlife as an obsessive surfer, traveling around the world, throwing his vulnerable, merely human body into line after line of waves in search of transient moments of grace…It’s an occupation that has never before been described with this tenderness and deftness.”—TIME Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2015 

“A hefty masterpiece.”
Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

“Terrific…Elegantly written and structured, it’s a riveting adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching meditation on love, friendship and family…A writer of rare subtlety and observational gifts, Finnegan explores every aspect of the sport — its mechanics and intoxicating thrills, its culture and arcane tribal codes — in a way that should resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike. His descriptions of some of the world’s most powerful and unforgiving waves are hauntingly beautiful…Finnegan displays an honesty that is evident throughout the book, parts of which have a searing, unvarnished intensity that reminded me of ‘Stop Time,’ the classic coming-of-age memoir by Frank Conroy.”
—Washington Post 

“The kind of book that makes you squirm in your seat on the subway, gaze out the window at work, and Google Map the quickest route to the beach. In other words, it is, like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a semi-dangerous book, one that persuades young men…to trade in their office jobs in order to roam the world, to feel the ocean’s power, and chase the waves.”
—The Paris Review Daily 
“Fans of [Finnegan’s] writing have been waiting eagerly for his surfing memoir…Well, Barbarian Days is here. And it’s even better than one could have imagined…This is Finnegan’s gift. He’s observant and expressive but shows careful restraint in his zeal. He says only what needs to be said, enough to create a vivid picture for the reader while masterfully giving that picture a kind of movement.”
—Honolulu Star-Advertiser 
“That surfing life is [Finnegan’s], and it’s a remarkably adventurous one sure to induce wanderlust in anyone who follows along, surfer or not…Lyrical but not overbaked, exciting but always self-effacing. It captures the moments of joy and terror Finnegan’s lifelong passion has brought him, as well as his occasional ambivalence about the tenacious hold it has on him. It’s easily the best book ever written about surfing. It’s not even close.”
—Florida Times-Union 
“An engrossing read, part treatise on wave physics, part thrill ride, part cultural study, with a soupçon of near-death events. Even for those who’ve never paddled out, Finnegan’s imagery is as vividly rendered as a film, his explanation of wave mastery a triumph of language. For surfers, the book is The Endless Summer writ smarter and larger, touching down at every iconic break.”
—Los Angeles Magazine 
“Vivid and propulsive…Finnegan…has seen things from the tops of ocean peaks that would disturb most surfers’ dreams for weeks. (I happily include myself among that number.)…A lyrical and enormously rewarding read…Finnegan’s enchantment takes us to some luminous and unsettling places — on both the edge of the ocean, and the frontiers of the surfing life.”
—San Diego Union-Tribune 
“Barbarian Days gleams with precise, often lyrical recollections of the most memorable waves [Finnegan has] encountered…He carefully mines his surfing exploits for broader, hard-won insights on his childhood, his most intense friendships and romances, his political education, his career. He’s always attuned to his surroundings, and his reflections are often tinged with self-effacing wit.”
—Chicago Reader 
“Extraordinary…[ Barbarian Days] is in many ways, and for the first time, a surfer in full. And it is cause for throwing your wet-suit hoods in the air…If the book has a flaw, it lies in the envy helplessly induced in the armchair surf-­traveler by so many lusty affairs with waves that are the supermodels of the surf world. Still, Finnegan considerately shows himself paying the price of admission in a few near drownings, and these are among the most electrifying moments in the book…There are too many breathtaking, original things in Barbarian Days to do more than mention here—observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well.”
—The New York Times Book Review 

“Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read… All this technical mastery and precise description goes hand in hand with an unabashed, infectious earnestness. Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, ‘Barbarian Days’ offers a cleareyed vision of American boyhood. Like Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild,’ it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world.”
—The New York Times Magazine

“Which is precisely what makes the propulsive precision of Finnegan’s writing so surprising and revelatory… Finnegan’s treatment of surfing never feels like performance. Through the sheer intensity of his descriptive powers and the undeniable ways in which surfing has shaped his life, Barbarian Days is an utterly convincing study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing…As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing. ” 
—The New York Review of Books 

“Finnegan is an excellent surfer; at some point he became an even better writer. That pairing makes Barbarian Days exceptional in the notoriously foamy genre of surf lit: a hefty, heavyweight tour de force, overbrimming with sublime lyrical passages that Finnegan drops as effortlessly as he executed his signature ‘drop-knee cutback’ in the breaks off Waikiki…Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery…Finnegan is a virtuoso wordsmith, but the juice propelling this memoir is wrung from the quest that shaped him…A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard.”
—Sports Illustrated 

Overflowing with vivid descriptions of waves caught and waves missed, of disappointments and ecstasies and gargantuan curling tubes that encircle riders like cathedrals of pure stained glass…These paragraphs, with their mix of personal remembrance and subcultural taxonomies, tend to be as elegant and pellucid as the breakers they immortalize…This memoir is one you can ride all the way to shore.”
—Entertainment Weekly 

“[A] sweeping, glorious memoir…Oh, the rides, they are incandescent…I’d sooner press this book upon on a nonsurfer, in part because nothing I’ve read so accurately describes the feeling of being stoked or the despair of being held under. But also because while it is a book about ‘A Surfing Life’…it’s also about a writer’s life and, even more generally, a quester’s life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than any I’ve read in a long time.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Gorgeously written and intensely felt…With Mr. Finnegan’s bravura memoir, the surfing bookshelf is dramatically enriched. It’s not only a volume for followers of the sport. Non-surfers, too, will be treated to a travelogue head-scratchingly rich in obscure, sharply observed destinations…Dare I say that we all need Mr. Finnegan…as a role model for a life fully, thrillingly, lived.”
—Wall Street Journal

“An evocative, profound and deeply moving memoir…The proof is in the sentences. Were I given unlimited space to review this book, I would simply reproduce it here, with a quotation mark at the beginning and another at the end. While surfers have a reputation for being inarticulate, there is actually a fair amount of overlap between what makes a good surfer and a good writer. A smooth style, an ability to stay close to the source of the energy, humility before the task, and, once you’re done, not claiming your ride. In other words, making something exceedingly difficult look easy. The gift for writing a clean line is rare, and the gift for riding one even rarer. Finnegan possesses both.”
—San Francisco Chronicle 

“Finnegan writes so engagingly that you paddle alongside, eager for him to take you to the next wave…It is a wet and wild run. He makes surfing seem as foreign and simultaneously as intimate a sport as possible…Surfing is the backbone of the book, but Finnegan’s relationships to people, not waves, form its flesh…[A] deep blue story of one man’s lifelong enchantment.”
—Boston Globe 

“Finnegan’s epic adventure, beautifully told, is much more than the story of a boy and his wave, even if surfing serves as the thumping heartbeat of his life.”
—Dallas Morning News 
“That’s always Finnegan’s M.O.: examining the ways in which surfing intertwines with anthropology, economics, politics, and, of course, writing. Finnegan is a sober, straightforward author, but the level of detail, emotion, and insight he achieves is unparalleled…A must-read for all surfers — not just because of its unblinking prose and subtle wit, but because it’s the only book that properly details what it’s like to cultivate both an award-winning career and a dedicated surfing life.”
—Eastern Surf Magazine

“Finnegan describes, with shimmering detail, his adventures riding waves on five continents. Surfing has taken him places he'd never otherwise have thought to go, but it also buoyed him through a career reporting on the politics of intense scarcity, limitless cruelty, and unimaginable suffering. It's a book about travel and growing up, and the power of a pastime when it becomes an obsession.”
—Men's Journal

“With a compelling storyline and masterful prose, Finnegan’s beautiful memoir is sure to resonate.”
—The New York Observer

“Fearless and full of grace.”
—Outside Magazine

—O, The Oprah Magazine

“It’s always fabulous when an incredible writer happens to also have a memoir-worthy life; Barbarian Days bodes well.”

“A demonstration of gratitude and mastery. [Finnegan] uses these words to describe the wave, but they might as well apply to the book. In a sense, Barbarian Days functions as a 450-page thank you letter, masterfully crafted, to his parents, friends, wife, enemies, ex-girlfriends, townsfolk, daughter—everyone who tolerated and even encouraged his lifelong obsession. It’s a way to help them—and us—understand what drives him to keep paddling out half a century after first picking up a board.”

“[A] lyrical, intellectual memoir. The author touches on love, on responsibility, on politics, individuality and morality, as well as on the lesser-known aspects of surfing: the toll it takes on the body, the weird lingo, the whacky community. Finnegan’s world is as dazzling and deep as any ocean. It’s a pleasure to paddle into and makes for a hell of a ride.”
—The Millions

“As it progresses the whole book turns into a portal…It’s tempting to say that Barbarian Days will bring readers as close as they’ll get to the surf, short of actual surfing. But I had a stronger reaction: The book brought me closer than I’d ever been, or expected to get, to the real, unfathomable ocean.”

“A dream of a book by a masterful writer long immersed in surfing culture. Finnegan recaptures the waves lost and found, the euphoria, the danger…the allure.”
 “Panoramic and fascinating…The core of the book is a surfing chronicle, and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides…A revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful addiction.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“Like that powerful, glassy wave, great books on surfing come few and far between. This summer, New Yorker writer Finnegan recalls his teenage years in the California and Hawaii of the 1960s—when surfing was an escape for loners and outcasts. A delightful storyteller, Finnegan takes readers on a journey from Hawaii to Australia, Fiji, and South Africa, where finding those waves is as challenging as riding them.”
—Publishers Weekly's Best Summer Books of the Summer

“A fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession. A lyrical and intense memoir.”

“An up-close and personal homage to the surfing lifestyle through the author’s journey as a lifelong surfer. Finnegan’s writing is polished and bold…[A] high-caliber memoir.”
—Library Journal

About the Author

WILLIAM FINNEGAN is the author of Cold New World, A Complicated War, Dateline Soweto, and Crossing the Line. He has twice been a National Magazine Award finalist and has won numerous journalism awards, including two Overseas Press Club awards since 2009. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987, he lives in Manhattan.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1st edition (July 21, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203474
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203473
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (539 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,300 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Esteban Ess VINE VOICE on May 24, 2015
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The unusual title of this book might lead a prospective reader to think the author is going to talk about the dark side of the people who surf. We have come to associate the word “barbarian” with hordes of less civilized people who sack cities and carry off fair maidens. But, a visit to Webster’s Dictionary will provide you with a meaning more relevant to William Finnegan’s book about the surfing life. Per Webster’s Dictionary, “barbarian” refers to a “… culture or people alien to, and usually believed to be inferior to another people or culture… “ A Barbarian might be seen as lacking refinement, learning, or artistic or literary culture. “Barbarian Days A Surfing Life” can be viewed as a memoir of some fifty years of William Finnegan’s life as a family member, a surfing fanatic, a writer, a world traveler and a Quixotic searcher of new and near perfect waves in remote places around the world; places like Indonesia, Fiji, Bali, and Madeira. But, Finnegan also finds exciting waves in California, New Jersey, New York and other less exotic locations. He also discovers highly talented artists, craftspeople, ocean experts, and business people who chose to devote their energy to surfing as a life style, sport, source of income, or all of the above. Finnegan makes friends and a few enemies along his path through life.

For those of us who surf, the book will bring special meaning covering as it does the history of surfing, evolution of surfboard designs and transition from the long board to the agile short board and on to tow in surfing to enable a rider to catch a wave fifty feet high, waves that could not be surfed before tow in technique was developed.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Point at a world map, and he's been there. Finnegan, a writer for the New Yorker, had been on my radar for a few years since I read a short story called "Playing Doc's Games" years ago. It was an in-the-moment story taking place in Northern California where surfing is an obsession, albeit a different sort than what we normally picture. Southern California and Hawaii have an image of beautiful blue waves, blue sky....the gorgeous outdoors. NorCal surfing is also gorgeous, but in a darker, rougher way. Waves are thunderous and dark, some of the best surf days are those of heavy clouds or rain, and access to beaches can be through cattle fields or hilly passes. Finnegan described this disparity and the people and sense of place that made NorCal what it was then (it's changed a bit, especially since Mavericks seems to have been taken over).

So I'd heard of him and read articles in the New Yorker by him, so it was a treat to read a memoir combining extended essays from his travels, mostly with a focus on his surfing life, although deviating a few times in interesting directions. He's been everywhere, and this linear memoir shows how he learned to read people and adapt to new situations early on. His middle school years in Hawaii are fascinating on how he had to learn to fit in, and did it by surfing. And how that surf spirit is really found anywhere in the world, but the real deal is a soul thing and speaks to much more than a board and a wave.

There's much of interest, but at times the pacing is slow: slower than in a New Yorker piece. At times I flipped pages a bit just to get on a new thread rather than be bogged down. I'm not sure if it was the mood I was in or if it was too repetitious in spots, but sometimes it felt like he was saying the same thing over and over but in different prose. Nonetheless, this was only for a few parts of the book and as a whole was vividly interesting.
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Best book on surfing I have read. Yes, he does veer from surfing to explore other aspects of his life, but it all weaves together so seamlessly that it holds the reader's interest throughout, even if you are a die hard surfer and that is your focus. As a contemporary of Finnegan, I found the descriptions of beach life and surfing from his childhood and early adolescence very nostalgic, even though he was describing California and Hawaii and I was on the east coast. I felt envy at the experiences he had exploring now famous waves around the world when they were still mostly unknown. This is a masterful piece of writing. His descriptions of the experience of riding a wave are unparalleled in my experience. The personal dimension he brings to the tale, both the people he meets and the conflicts he goes through, brings the story to life. This is a page turner I had trouble putting down and went through it in a few days. At 447 pages I was sad to come to the end.
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God, did I want to love this book. I read Finnegan's surfing trilogy in the New Yorker about 10 years ago. It has always stuck with me as one of the great pieces of writing ever. The tone, balance, and expression are extraordinary. In sum, they are perfect jewels, the like of which I have never read since. I read everything I could find by Finnegan afterwards: none quite matched up. I concluded that the singularity of the New Yorker pieces was the way Finnegan wove the intensity of life into the waves while somehow conveying something profound about how we all deal with the struggle for life and death in day to day life. It was also just a damn good read.

So, when this book came along, I expected the same. Foolish me. Clearly, surfing and the author are bound closely: both professionally and recreationally. He loves the sport and made his name from it. That this autobiography is called "a surfing life" is surely not accidental. Finnegan made a splash with the trilogy and he is known for it and because of it.

This book, however, does not approach the heights of the New Yorker pieces. It is as if the Beatles had done a concept album based on "A day in The Life" ten years after the song. Structurally, the main difference is that Finnegan was essentially a somewhat removed observer in the articles. The main character was an asthmatic doctor who overcame his condition because he had to surf to live and vice versa; the author is opaque; like Ross McDonald's P.I.'s he has no back story: he just is. In the book, its all about Finnegan. And this is the problem.

A more honest title would be "My Life Including Surfing". There is far too much detail about the author's family, friends, and habits. Much of it is boring.
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