**Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography**
“Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery. . . . a coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard.”—Sports Illustrated
Included in President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List
Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life.
Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses—off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships forged in challenging waves.
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly—he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui—is served up with rueful humor. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he discovers the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissects the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, and navigates the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.
Barbarian Days is 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.
Praise for Barbarian Days:
“Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read . . . But on a more fundamental level, Barbarian Days offers a clear-eyed 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
“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] 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
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
You don’t have to love surfing to become completely engrossed in journalist William Finnegan’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, but you’ll probably be very interested in the sport by the time you’re done. With an unflinching and intimate voice, Finnegan examines his lifelong obsession, delivering a nervy coming-of-age story and a chronicle of his nomadic life. From California and Hawaii to Cape Town and Australia, Finnegan catches waves and grapples with relationships, politics, religion, and the rise of ’60s counterculture. He shows how surfing provides his restless soul with comfort, joy, and a reason to not settle down.
In this panoramic and fascinating memoir, long-time New Yorker staff writer Finnegan pays tribute to the ancient art of surfing. Arriving on Oahu from California at 13, in the mid-1960s, Finnegan discovered that Hawaiian public school students weren't particularly welcoming to haoles; surfing brought him acceptance and contentment, and would remain central to his life for the next half century. In the late 1970s, he set out in pursuit of a perfect wave, and spent five years circumnavigating the globe with long stops in Polynesia, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa. The social inequality he witnessed led him to journalism, but after his return to the U.S. and fatherhood, the waves still beckoned, even if that meant enduring a January swell off Long Island. Throughout this lengthy work, Finnegan never loses sight of the marginalized, such as the black students he taught in apartheid South Africa. Yet the core of the book is a surfing chronicle, and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides. As a middle-aged, professionally successful man, he grapples with his aging body and the contradictions of surfing's commodification, at one point returning as a high-end tourist to a wave he pioneered as a penniless kid. Surfing (mostly) remains a man's world, and Finnegan's attempts to mention the women he loved seem like afterthoughts. Nevertheless, he has written a revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful addiction.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Great ride, great read
I've body surfed a lot and wished I'd learned to surf. Now I know what it's like. Terrific book.
I really enjoyed this book. I liked the stories of discovering surf spots like Tavarua, Maderia, and OB before they got crowded or transformed. I also believe Bill tried to stay honest in his experiences both in and out of the water and it was refreshing in a world where surf stories can be a bit like fish stories. But here is the part where I felt conflicted by this story. Towards the end, as he is living in New York he airs his frustration of how surf culture has become incorporated into our society but isn't that what he is partaking the by writing this book?
The words, story, places and times all hit me like the personal backwash of my own life. But even youngsters who never sat in the lineup can marvel at the quality of the prose and vivid palette of images that immerse the lucky reader in the life of a world girdling surfer, a surfer that is also a a world class writer.