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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life Hardcover – July 21, 2015
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“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“[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.”
“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.”
“With a compelling storyline and masterful prose, Finnegan’s beautiful memoir is sure to resonate.”
—The New York Observer
“Fearless and full of grace.”
—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.”
“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.”
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.
Top customer reviews
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. For the reader who has tried surfing or body surfing and felt the power of the ocean then decided not to take up surfing, this book will still hold much meaning as a story about the zone where ocean meets land, where people try to co-exist with the power of the surf and where a life style built around surfing continues to evolve. The author delves into personalities, territorial claims on the waves themselves, human pecking orders and power struggles, life on the cheap, and the struggle to survive on very little while chasing bigger and better waves in distant, hard to reach locations.
Finnegan discusses his family life and the turmoil and rip tides in the zones where family needs and surfing demands often conflict and hard choices about values and love must be made. The story begins in his boyhood years then progresses all the way through his teenage years and into an extended maybe twenty year period of delayed maturity as he chases the waves to exclusion of other aspects of growing up. The sport of surfing changes during his own years of growth. Corporations and Big Media enter the surfing world wth an eye to making lots of money as millions of youth around the world are reeled in by the images and attraction of this looser way of life. Hard-core surfers and action junkies get into surfing waves generated by cold, winter storms and by hurricane winds. Finnegan knows and shares their stories.
I discovered a lot I didn’t know as I read the book and will enjoy my trips to Hawaii and California a lot more now that I have a better idea of what goes on out in the surf and how the surfer lifestyle operates. The book is more enjoyable if the reader views video of the special breaks and waves and locations described by the author. Photos in the book add substance to the text. A great ride even if you do not surf.
The book flows easily. My Thanksgiving in the Bay Area found me 'checking it out' at Ocean Beach (it was a smallish day). A lifetime of surfing hasn't diminished his passion to challenge big surf, even when he can barely 'pop up' and hang on at age 60.
Finnegan is a gifted writer, no doubt, and he has written a little bit of everything from magazine features to books to op-eds. So, I have to assume that the very languid (torpid?) memoir approach he took, absent much of anything breezy was a conscious decision.
It was a bit of a slog for me and the only reason I finished it was because it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Starting off with Finngan at age 13 as a white boy bullied in Hawaii's public schools, the book flip flops back and forth between Hawaii and California. Finngan spends some time on Maui surfing Honolua after graduating from high school, then traverses the world in search of his endless winter (big swells are usually in the winter, not summer, Finnegan tells us). He ends up in San Francisco where he meets another burgeoning surf community, very different from Hawaii or Southeast Asia. Then he ends up in New York, married, and middle aged. The book ends with some reflections on life and aging and surfing. Finnegan might be humble bragging a little, but at the end of the day, age or fitness aside, the author is a *really* good surfer who got into it before the waves got too crowded and also lucked out a little professionally where he found himself in the right place at the right time (South Africa in the 80s) and eventually found a passion that fit his talents.
I read the beginning part with interest: how is all this going to lead him to landing a job at the New Yorker? And the latter part I read as a reflection on aging. But mostly I read the book as a reflection on Finnegan's pursuit of meaning and love (a girl) and surf. The surf descriptions imbue the whole book was a certain searching mystique, but I agree with the New York Times review that the characters, including Finnegan himself remain a little submerged. His parents are perfect. He himself encounters very little difficulty in life beside a little delay in his professional life as he pursues the thoroughly awesome adventure of surfing the world's finest waves.
Reading the book, especially the section about his circumnavigating the globe and almost dying in his 20s, I found myself reflecting on my own life decisions and how I spent my 20s. And, well, I got something out of it.
I have to admit, although the descriptions of the waves were gorgeous, I did skip some of these. I'm pretty sure Finnegan has now exhausted all possible descriptions of a wave for all other surf writers.
This four is actually a 4.5/5--come on, the writing's good--but I feel like some of it could have been edited down. It's great that he was able to publish all these extensive descriptions of waves, because they are gorgeous, but for the average reader, it doesn't really add to his story.