Barbarian Days : A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography
Included in President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List
“Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read . . . “ –The New York Times Magazine
Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s memoir that delves into his all-consuming passion for surfing. While many see surfing as just a sport, to Finnegan and others initiated into its world, it is much more. It is a captivating addiction, a rigorous educational journey, a morally risky pastime, and a way of life.
Having grown up in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing at a young age and has spent years pursuing waves across the globe, including the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa. Despite being a bookish boy, he embarked on daring adventures and eventually became a respected writer and war correspondent.
Barbarian Days takes readers on a captivating journey into unfamiliar territories, some of which are right in our own backyard – the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses us in the intense bond of male friendships formed in the face of challenging waves. Finnegan shares riveting tales of his life in a predominantly white gang in a rough Honolulu school. He exposes the profound disruptions experienced by both children and adults during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Furthermore, he provides intricate details of renowned waves and his own struggle to master them. The book even recounts his youthful recklessness – dropping LSD while riding massive waves at Honolua Bay in Maui – all delivered with a sense of rueful humor.
As his travels take him to increasingly distant places, Finnegan discovers the serene simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, examines the intricate dynamics of Tongan interactions with foreigners, and skillfully navigates the Indonesian black market while battling the threat of malaria.
Throughout his experiences, Finnegan continues to surf, allowing readers to virtually ride alongside him, witnessing the thrilling, yet crystal-clear moments on the wave. Barbarian Days is more than just a conventional adventure story; it is an intellectual account of Finnegan’s life, a social chronicle, a literary voyage, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastery of a demanding and often misunderstood art.
The Science and Serenity of Surfing: A Surfer’s Journey to Understanding Waves and Mastering the Ocean
All surfers are oceanographers, constantly engaging in advanced research in the realm of breaking waves. While they may not need to be explicitly told that when a wave breaks, the water particles themselves begin to move forward, they are busy unraveling more intricate connections. These connections could be between tide and consistency, or swell direction and near shore bathymetry. The science of surfing may not be purely academic, but rather heavily applied. The goal is to comprehend the essence of waves, the way they function, and most importantly, what they are likely to do next.
However, waves are a complex dance, and the realm of surfing is a closely guarded sanctuary that is not so easily accessible. For me personally, my recollection of learning about a particular spot, truly understanding it, and unlocking its secrets is often intertwined with memories of the friend who accompanied me on this journey. Our study of a small patch of shoreline, meticulously observing every eddy, angle, and even individual rocks, in all combinations of tide, wind, and swell, becomes our primary pursuit. It is a longitudinal study that spans multiple seasons, and it is the fundamental occupation of surfers at their local break. To truly grasp the intricacies of a spot, to have it completely wired, can take years, and in the case of complex breaks, it may be a lifelong endeavor that is never truly completed.
However, this is perhaps not what most people perceive when they catch a glimpse of surfers in the water. But for us, it is the primary challenge that drives us to venture out into the lineup. We ponder: what are these waves doing, and what are they likely to do next? For a surfer sitting in the lineup, attempting to decipher the underlying structure of a swell, this problem can manifest itself with a certain musical quality. Are these waves approaching in a rhythm of 13:8, with seven sets per hour and the third wave of each set veering wide in a dissonant crescendo? Or is this swell akin to one of God’s jazz solos, its arrangement beyond our comprehension?
The surfing community operates on a delicate social contract that is revised every time we paddle out at crowded breaks. Talent, aggression, local knowledge, and reputation all contribute to establishing a rough pecking order. As I pursued waves instinctively, I experienced a surge of excitement when conditions were favorable, and thoroughly immersed myself in deciphering the puzzle of a new spot. Yet, these exceptional experiences were few and far between, as most sessions were unremarkable. What remained consistent, however, was a certain serenity that followed a demanding surfing session. It was a physical state, but it carried a distinct emotional undercurrent. At times, it evoked a sense of joy, while often it was a pleasant melancholy. After particularly intense tubes or wipeouts, I felt charged and a wild inclination to weep would linger for hours. This range of powerful emotions could rival those experienced after deeply intimate moments.
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