Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan

I’m no surfer, I may look like one, watch surfing, and know the names of some surfers, but I have surfed once in my life. It was one short session at the East Wittering on the south coast of England. William Finnegan, the author of this book, would probably not even bother trying to surf this break. It is tiny, but is known to be a good place for beginners like myself. Finnegan was raised in California and Hawaii, perfect places for him to learn to surf, and later perfect his technique. This book is incredible, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography in 2016, but to me it is a homage to surfing more than it is an autobiography.


Throughout this book Finnegan tells anecdotes from his life. He grew up surfing near Los Angeles, before moving to Hawaii with his family. It was here that his true love of surfing began to emerge, surfing as often as he wanted and often without telling his family that he was leaving to surf. Even at a young age he met various characters that influenced both Finnegan’s life and his surfing style. Although obviously targeted at readers who enjoy surfing, Finnegan has managed to write a book that is accessible to everyone, I don’t understand some of the terminology but he explains it well.

Finnegan is allowed, through surf and writing, to do something I would love to do. He travels the world, working when he can, but mostly following his dream. With his friend Bryan he travels the South Pacific, following leads to new waves and exploring islands that were still untouched by tourism. The two young men travel to Fiji, Australia, Bali amongst others, meeting lots of people who are part of the small surfing community. There is the boat full of Australians who sail about to find breaks, the rumours of waves on remote islands, and the stories of illness and injury.

Much of this autobiography takes place before the emergence of surfing as a professional sport, he comments upon this, especially later when he starts to visit Madeira in Portugal. Part of this book seems to be lamenting globalisation and the loss of some surf breaks to other surfers, and to the general public. I’ve already recommended to a couple of people as it is such an accessible and interesting read. The mixture of biography, surf history and travel writing make it extremely good, and perfect for any reader.


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