Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan


My poor, poor blog. You’ve been terribly neglected haven’t you? Well, gentle readers, expect a slew of reviews coming your way as I try to get through my back log of books.

First up: Barbarian Days. Recommended by a few people at work (not to mention the Pulitzer committee). I was pretty eager to get stuck into this one. My limited knowledge of surfing (and surfing culture) comes exclusively from the Disney channel movie Johnny Tsunami which is technically more about snowboarding and fish-out-of-water storytelling so there you go.

Spanning the 1960s to the present day and locations as varied as Hawaii, California, the South Pacific, Australia, and South Africa, Finnegan’s life is definitely book-worthy.

Because of my limited surfing knowledge, I went into Barbarian Days expecting to hear of the exploits of world-famous surfer Bill Finnegan. Well turns out Finnegan isn’t a professional surfer just a life-long devotee. After a lifetime of chasing waves, Finnegan offers up an intensely personal biography-cum-social history of those who put their passion for surfing above all else. Told with humour, reverence, and a refreshing amount of self-deprecation, I have a hard time imagining who this story wouldn’t appeal to. Goodreads describes it as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.” Well put.

Now, time for some complaints. At 400 pages, Barbarian Days is perhaps a mite too long. I felt my interest flag for the last hundred pages or so. Another (minor) complaint: even though you don’t have to be well-versed in surfing it does pay to know a bit about wave mechanics as Finnegan isn’t above devoting pages at a time to the different ways in which waves operate. I can’t be the only one who feels completely ignorant when tidal mechanics are casually dropped into a narrative.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these are small issues. Finnegan is engaging and his life story is fascinating. This one will appeal to those with wanderlust or anyone who has ever felt compelled to chase a wave or their passion. For Finnegan, those two just happen to be one and the same.



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