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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

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A deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer by the acclaimed New Yorker writer

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 entirely: 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 annealed in challenging waves.

Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. 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. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia. They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world’s greatest waves. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating 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. Today, Finnegan’s surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar.

447 pages, Hardcover

First published July 21, 2015

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About the author

William Finnegan

18 books323 followers
William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He has won several awards for his journalism and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his work "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life."

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,758 reviews
Profile Image for Adina.
827 reviews3,226 followers
December 15, 2021
4.5. It probably deserves only 4 stars but I am still thinking about it, one month after I finished it so I decided to upgrade the rating.

Last night I dreamed I was surfing. Well, trying to, at least. The author would not even call that a Kook effort, which is slang for a beginner. I took the dream as a sign that I should finally write a review for this memoir.

I bought Barbarian Days few years ago before a vacation where I was planning to take a surf lesson. I saw it won the Pulitzer Prize and it was recommended by Obama. I’ve always thought surf is a very cool sport and it was (still is) a dream to learn it. I final got to start the book during another vacation where I did another course, three days this time. What I am trying to say is that it might be a good idea to read this book if you have some interest in the sport. There is a lot of talk about catching waves in it (hinted by the subtitle). Maybe there is too much surf in it, 500 pages felt a bit extreme but I enjoyed it way too much to tax that in the end. The book became my friend and I felt a bit melancholic when I finished.

William Finnegan is a reporter for The New Yorker, usually covering pieces about politics and wars. Before Barbarian Days, he wrote several books about the above subjects. As you can imagine, the guy can write and he does it beautifully. I mean, in how many ways one can present a day of surf without boring the hell out of the reader? Many, many times it seems.
“The newly emerging ideal was solitude, purity, perfect waves far from civilization. Robinson Crusoe, Endless Summer. This was a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians. This was not the daydream of the happy idler. It went deeper than that. Chasing waves in a dedicated way was profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”

The book is a memoir of the author’s life and the importance of surfing in its development. Both his surfing life and what he did when he was not in the water was interesting and I enjoyed getting emerged in the depths of Finnegan beautiful words.

“Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer. An unearthly beauty saturates an enormous arena of moving water, latent violence, too-real explosions, and sky. Scenes feel mythic even as they unfold. I always feel a ferocious ambivalence: I want to be nowhere else; I want to be anywhere else.”

The author is very encouraging for people coming late to surf: “People who tried to start at an advanced age, meaning over fourteen, had, in my experience, almost no chance of becoming proficient, and usually suffered pain and sorrow before they quit.” He is also a big supporter of surf schools for amateurs: "Meanwhile, thousands of entrepreneurs, most of them underemployed surfers, have opened beachfront concessions to teach surfing in dozens of countries. Coastal resorts now include surf lessons among their amenities. “Cross surfing off your bucket list.” It’s unlikely that surf schools for tourists will add many new faces to the crowded lineups where seasoned surfers battle for scarce waves. I am joking, obviously. His tone on these subjects bothered me a bit but not enough to ruin my positive overall opinion.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
628 reviews383 followers
February 4, 2022
I spent a lot of car-locked hours listening to William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life while I drove through three provinces to get to a two-week placement and back again. In fact, the 18 and a bit hours of Finnegan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir lasted through two driving companions, one who joined me for the book’s opening hours, the other who took in the final three hours. The later companion remarked, with nary but an hour left in the audiobook:

”Man, he’s just all about the surfing, isn’t he?”

Indeed, Finnegan’s memoir regales his years spent in the thrall of surfing’s hypnotic draw with furious obsession. For the most part, it is an extremely well written, and superbly narrated account. Summer rays and the warm weather they bring are just beginning to make an appearance in my neck of the woods, and Finnegan’s memoir provided the ideal opening salvo of summer. Plain descriptions of lush surf, a life lived on the world’s beaches, and a journalist’s eye for time and place transported me far from the car to the oases of surf.

The memoir is dense, and I’ll admit to dipping in and out of listening during certain portions of the book. In what I’m sure would be a frustrating reading experience, Finnegan describes day after day of surfing conditions, waves caught, wipeouts sustained, and board handling with enough regularity that it was not always necessary to listen to the audiobook. Think of it as the audio equivalent to skimming a book.

Though the seemingly endless deluge of surfing terminology, description, technicality, and meteorological conditions wore on me at the audiobook’s onset, it took on a kind of plainspoken poetry as the book wore on. It is also helped that Finnegan himself, who helps to add gravitas to a sport most often associated with reckless, longhaired adrenaline junkies, narrates the book. Finnegan will sigh at his youthful foolishness, speak animatedly about an exciting memory, or sound appropriately dour as the situation requires. The narration adds such a layer of depth to the book that I couldn’t recommend reading it: the audiobook is the definitive edition.

Of course, the only reason to want to read a memoir is to hear a tale of an interesting life. Luckily, Finnegan has captured his life of reckless abandon that certainly seemed outside the realm of normal human experience. The book opens with tales of combat and surfing as a child in Hawaii first, then California. My first driving companion and I both noted how these opening chapters, the first 4 hours or so of the audiobook, seem like barbarian narratives transplanted into the land of sea and surf. Finnegan spits, throws punches, receives punches, wrestles, and comes home bruised and bleeding from surf and combat. Finnegan captures that daily violence was just a part of growing up in the 60s and well earns his title of Barbarian Days.

The middle section of the book, where Finnegan travels around the world on an endless search for the world’s best waves, was my favorite. Here Finnegan is able to put his journalism chops to work as he weaves his ode to surfing. Finnegan brings to life other cultures, politics, people, and the place they live in with rare insight. He spends time in Fiji, teaches in South Africa during apartheid, and endures some brutal medical conditions all in search of the perfect wave. The more savage weather conditions he and his surfing partner face in international surf are also suitably terrifying.

Throughout the book Finnegan meets with a wide swath of surfers. It is at first jarring to deal with such an ungainly cast, but then life always has an obscenely large amount of characters. What Finnegan does is paint not only a culture of surfing, but helps to describe the people who do surf and their various reasons for tackling such a life-threatening sport.

My complaints are minor. Some of the surfing sections, though they do evoke beautiful places, can become repetitive and boring. Finnegan does not pause to explain every surfing concept, or describe moves, he just expects that the reader will keep up with him. I just had to head to Google on coffee and bathroom breaks to help build the world Finnegan describes. The book also drags on towards the end, and the ending itself isn’t all that satisfying. Naturally, real lives don’t always have thematic wrap-ups that bring closure to an individual’s story, but I thought he could have closed out the book with a bit more oomph.

I’m not the first person to note this, but it is a real shame that Goodreads doesn’t operate on a ten-point scale (i.e. 0.5s). This isn’t the best audiobook I’ve ever listened to, but it was good. With that said, it drags at times, and I dropped in and out of listening like waves lapping at the shore during my drive. So, 3.5 stars with a kind round-up to a full 4. This is a book about fanatical devotion to one’s given craft. Surfing for Finnegan is not just a sport, but a way of life that causes him to lose love and abandon family. There’s a zen philosophy to all of this that is compelling in its own right. The compulsion to chase endless waves, live an endless summer, and never grow old is like crystallized summer. If you’re taking a long drive this summer, or looking for something to put on with a beer in your hand as the sun goes down, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life would be a fine companion.

UPDATE: Here's a great article by Pitchfork about the sounds of surfing with William Finnegan.


[Review of Audiobook]
Profile Image for Paula K .
419 reviews424 followers
February 3, 2019
One of the best books I have ever read!

What a wonderful book. I listened to the audiobook and was glad I did. William Finnegan has a delightful voice. So soothing that you feel calmed. This Pulitzer Prize winner is so worth the read.

Highly recommend.
5 out of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Brina.
898 reviews4 followers
December 25, 2018
I have an ongoing personal Pulitzer challenge that I engage in each year. This year was a struggle all the way around but I managed to read six nonfiction winners and one player. Next year I am setting the bar higher and will participate in a Pulitzer challenge in the nonfiction Pulitzer group. It is not as much of a challenge as a way for me to track my books. That aside, December is a time where everyone I know is either busy with holiday preparations or rushing to get books read for challenges. I selected Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life as it is not a lengthy, historical tome. Rather, New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan details his life of surfing both in and out of the water, paying homage to the how chasing an endless wave is a metaphor for life.

Born in 1952 in New York to film editors Bill and Patricia Finnegan, at age two William Finnegan found himself on the move to the fledgling film industry in suburban Los Angeles. The family eventually grew and Bill, Sr was constantly at work on one film or another. His work allowed the family to keep a weekend home in coastal Ventura or with friends on Newport Beach. By age ten, the surf called and William Finnegan was on a board for the first time. Growing up in both California and Hawaii, Finnegan had many chances to surf on a nearly daily basis. His skills improved each year to the point that by the end of high school, the waves called his attention more so than academia. After one year at University of California Santa Cruz, Finnegan rejoined his family in Hawaii and the life of a surfer.

By the time Finnegan reached his mid twenties, he has been disillusioned by academia completely. Yet he pined for the endless wave and convinced a surfing acquaintance named Bryan Salvatore to embark with him on a two year adventure to the Southern Hemisphere chasing the perfect wave. The two traveled to out of the way places as Fiji, Samoa, a stop in Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. They surfed waves as Tavarua, Fiji that today are known in the surfing community but in the 1970s were virtual unknown. Both men got a flare for local life and took up writing, eventually leading years later to both writing for surfing and other respectable magazines. Salvatore, being five years older than Finnegan, returned to the United States after two years, leaving him at a crossroads. The spirit of adventure beckoned more than surfing, as Finnegan traveled to South Africa where he taught English, Europe, and eventually home. Surfing was always on his mind even if his journeys took him to landlocked countries. While not a perpetual beach bum, Finnegan had become, in his father’s words, hooked on the barbarian days of youth.

William Finnegan has written as a staff reporter for the New Yorker for the last thirty years. He makes New York his home but embarks in at least one surfing vacation a winter to places like Portugal, Fiji, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In each location he hones his journalistic skills by interacting with locals while also chasing the perfect wave. This memoir was a change of pace for a Pulitzer winner and is more than just about surfing. Finnegan discusses the history of the sport, human conditions in diverse countries around the globe, and surfing as a metaphor for men chasing eternal youth. Much has changed since Finnegan first started surfing including better equipment that allow for physically fit people to surf well into middle age. Surfing has been for Finnegan like the fountain of youth although at this point he knows his limitations and does not try for the largest wave in the ocean. Content with watching his daughter grow into adulthood, Finnegan has learned to balance surfing with family life.

Thinking that Barbarian Days would be about the life of a quintessential California beach bum, I had few expectations when I began this book. I have found the Pulitzer winners I read to be well written even if the subject matter doesn’t necessarily interest me. Barbarian Days ended up being about how the baby boom generation has grappled with growing older as well as an overview of the history of surfing and a quasi travelogue. If anything it has made me pine for the beach in the middle of winter and has me eager to read more Pulitzer winners in the year to come.

4 stars
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,002 reviews36k followers
March 23, 2017
William Finnegan, has a sultry pleasant voice.
His voice - alone - was alluring.

I enjoyed listening to the never-ending surfing stories as I might a guided meditation.....
like meditation.....
I often drifted into 'ozo-land'...... taking detours away from the spiritual path. I didn't have the endurance to keep up with the Zen of Surfing -God.

William Finnegan is a phenomenal writer -- blows my mind a surfer could be so lyrical and descriptive. BUT THERE IS NO LET UP!
Very impressive ongoing - ongoing - and ongoing specific detail descriptions of
'Everything Surfing'.

The ocean....a surfboard.....waves....paddling....competitions....surfers obsessions - surfers addictions - a surfing life!

William's stories about his childhood - living in Los Angles- then Hawaii - his family - his personal self worth growing up - his body - ( concerns of being smaller and too thin as a young white boy living in Hawaii), his parents, siblings, his school days, friends, girls, books, ( almost as important to him as surfing), his relationship with surfing from early beginning days to more advance, were all interesting.....
When he describes in details 'wave patterns' .... I felt like he was speaking a foreign language. Lots of surfing jargon---SOME of it is BEAUTIFUL to listen to ....
SOME of it becomes overwhelming! ---nap time!

The end!

God no, I wasn't awake all 18 hours of surfing-storytime....but I liked MUCH of it.
Our younger daughter- Ali - grew up surfing in Santa Cruz. Ha, she cut-her first period class in H.S. a little too often because she was busy catching 'the waves' before sunrise.
I was suppose to write her notes that said was at the dentist-- twice a week? Haha!

3.7-3.8...... rounding up to 4 stars.

Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
540 reviews123 followers
December 26, 2018
The writing was so vivid that I ended up having nightmares about trying to learn how to surf. I'll be coming back to this especially for the descriptions of surfing, reading the wind, and shapes of waves.

There's a great interweaving of politics of places as the author surfs through them, engaging with his decisions and his relationships with people in the moment and over time.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
July 17, 2017
Let's get this out of the way: I don't know how to surf, I've never been to Hawaii, and what little I do know of surfing was gleaned from watching cheesy movies like 1991's "Point Break" and 1987's "North Shore."

To wit: I am not the ideal audience for this memoir about a surfing life. And yet, I really enjoyed this book!

For starters, it has some seriously gorgeous prose. William Finnegan writes for The New Yorker and he won a Pulitzer Prize for Barbarian Days, which is how it came to my attention. The memoir chronicles Finnegan's childhood spent in California and Hawaii, his stories of learning how to surf, making friends and enemies among the local gangs, and eventually of his adventures traveling around the world looking for great surfing spots. My favorite stories in the book were about his dangerous surf outings (I lost track of how many times he nearly died), of his travels with various friends and girlfriends, and of how he tries to balance his surfing obsession with being an adult who has a job and a family. Surfers never grow old, it seems.

If you like audiobooks, I highly recommend Finnegan's narration. He has a beautiful, deep voice that is perfect for storytelling. (His voice reminded me of the actor John Slattery — kinda dreamy.) This is a great ride of a book.

Favorite Quote
"But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around. Everything out there was disturbingly laced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness — a dynamic, indifferent world. At thirteen, I had mostly stopped believing in God, but that was a new development, and it had left a hole in my world, a feeling that I'd been abandoned. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure."
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
405 reviews2,197 followers
April 13, 2020
Posted at Heradas.com

No matter what we tell ourselves, we all secretly want to live forever. It follows that a good memoir serves as vicarious life extension, toward this eternally minded, unachievable end. A glimpse into an alternate possibility. Between the pages unfolds what could’ve been — if. If we were born at a different time. If we had different circumstances. If we had different interests. If we were altogether different people through any number of natural or nurtural deviations against our norm.

I’ve long been obsessed with those whose lives are lived on the rough and ragged edges of society. The way in which William Finnegan splits his time between war correspondence and surfing — two extreme lifestyles on their own, together in one individual — was properly interesting. His clean prose and serious storytelling chops certainly didn’t hurt either. There’s a very good reason this book won him a Pulitzer.

Throughout his childhood in Hawaii, he didn’t fit. An outsider, ethnically and socially. As a child his whole personality seemed to ricochet off of the locale, grasping at a world filled with violence for a handhold to guide him. The time period in which he came of age added to his dissociation among his peers. Eventually he found surfing as a wild, violent, introverted escape from his lack of acceptance. It held just enough of a loner mentality to capture those with similar social needs. This conglomeration of loners he met while chasing waves became his friends; a tertiary social net composed of outcasts.

“We were fellow skeptics—rationalists, readers of books in a world of addled, inane mystics.”


He describes surfing as “a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live”. One that had a “vaguely outlaw uselessness” that “neatly expressed one’s disaffection.” Who doesn’t want something like that in their life? It’s the reason people free climb, skateboard, race motorcycles, and spend time in the woods, running themselves to exhaustion. It’s why marathons are a thing, bull-fighting, spelunking.

Throughout Barbarian days, Finnegan contrasts the intensity of a life spent surfing, with that of a life spent chasing stories across war-torn countries. These are the divisions that comprise his whole. He sees himself as a man who needs to chase danger, and can only relax after having exhausted that part of himself. I can relate to a tiny degree. He can only be calm when he has faced his intense, possible death. I can only truly rest when I’ve exhausted my dual needs for effective productivity and creative endeavor. I need to see evidence of my existence in the world or I can never be still.

Eventually he would settle down: marriage, children, home ownership, and moving to New York City did indeed soften him somewhat, but the fire at his core was never extinguished. It only sat at a simmer, waiting to be flooded with the particular brand of fuel needed to burn up the excess energy of his life.

After writing up a report of those around him — including other reporters — dying in the act of journaling the insanity they were embedded in, he would surf. Every chance he got, he would surf. The fervor with which he expressed his desire to surf, was never repetitive. Surfing, it seems, is part addiction, part meditation. A calming obsession for the soul.

Being not remotely interested in surfing, or living that kind of life, I was still fascinated to see the myriad ways something I had previously thought extremely repetitious — the act of waiting for a wave, catching it, riding it back to shore, again and again — was instead full of rapturous intrigue, and a kind of fascination that I had not previously known associated with any sort of sport.

My favorite parts of this book, again having no interest in surfing myself, were the human moments between surfing sessions. The characters that populate this memoir, were so interesting, simply because they weren’t normal people. They live intense, chaotic lives, left of center, unstable, but full of passion. Something most of our stable, silly lives could use a lot more of.

A life in vans, sleeping on beaches, running from cops, defrauding American Express to pay for hospitalization due to malaria. These are wild lives. People who thrive only through chasing death, and therefore have a better grasp on what a good life might entail. Things most of us are far too cowardly to do ourselves—or I am at least.

“If this was a religion, perhaps it didn’t bear thinking about what was being worshipped.”


A particularly touching moment in Barbarian Days is when William asks his wife why she never gets angry about all of the “stupid risky things” he does. She responds that she simply assumed he needed to do them. “When things get bad, I think you get very calm,” she says. “I trust your judgment.” It’s such a tender moment that illuminates a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

They all seem like intense people, even the girlfriends of his youth and his eventual wife. Artist to lawyer is not a normal career path to follow, but it makes sense for her. It shows an intensity in all things. A life full of passion. And who doesn’t want to read about passionate people?
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books925 followers
January 6, 2020
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is more the subtitle than the title -- that is, a surfing life. To break it down further, it is more life than surfing, as it follows William Finnegan from youngest years to the present day, from continent to continent, from schools to jobs, from here to eternity. Is there a lot of surfing in that life? Yes. Is there a lot of life -- maybe too much life -- in this book? Yes again.

Meaning, I felt that 464 pages was a bit much. Surprising, considering Finnegan is a New Yorker writer (that is, if you subscribe to the notion that journalists, more than novelists, are more likely to stay on point and cut to the narrative bone). There are enjoyable descriptions of the ocean and the surfers who like to ride it spread throughout the book. There are also lulls where I kept looking deep for incoming swells.

Admittedly, I may not be the best judge. I have never surfed in my life. Thus, I came to the book with romanticized notions about surfing and hoped for lyrical passages you'd expect from a real writer's writer. You know. Hemingway Hangs Ten. But really it was more matter of fact. Well-written, yes. Just overwritten, content-wise. In need of the famous editor Maxwell Perkins, maybe.

That said, if you are interested in the autobiography of a New Yorker writer whose greatest love has been surfing -- almost 500 pages worth -- you'll likely enjoy this journalist's tale. At least his life is more exciting than most -- certainly more exciting (and accomplished) than mine. Hat's off and hang ten, then!
Profile Image for Aloke.
198 reviews52 followers
December 8, 2015
Barbarian Days review

This is a memoir built around surfing. Despite knowing nothing about surfing I enjoyed most if it. That's an accomplishment. It's also got a great cover.

The book is split into three parts. The first part, set in California and Hawaii, is the strongest. It talks about Finnegan's childhood and his discovery of surfing. If this were a superhero movie this would be the part where the protagonist discovers their powers. Some of this was excerpted in The New Yorker and it's what drew me to the book. Sketches of Hawaii interspersed with passages about surfing. These, although cryptic, coalesced into a vivid picture of what makes surfing so exciting.

In the middle of the book, Finnegan wanders around the world with his buddy Bryan surfing and traveling. The organizing principle is, of course, surfing. This actually seems like an excellent idea since it takes him off the beaten path to some interesting places. But surfers are an introverted lot and the singleminded pursuit of waves leaves the reader feeling like Finnegan's missed the forest for the trees. It's not culture that interests surfers. Most stops on the journey are summarized by their breaks: Fiji becomes Tavarua, Australia is Kirra and Indonesia turns into, well, not much since they don't manage to find any great surf spots there. You'll never forget that you're reading a surfing book. And we get a lot of it. If this were a romantic comedy, this would be the part where those endearing quirks start turning into annoyances.

Finnegan redeems himself in the end with two long pieces. One is about big wave surfing in San Francisco and another concerns Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa. The SF piece was also written for the New Yorker (and I read it greedily after reading the Hawaii story). The writing is more relaxed and funny. The jargon washes pleasantly over you. You find the characters more engaging. If this were a dinner party you'd be starting your third drink.

But it's just too long. You have to commit to this guy like his wife committed to vacationing in surf spots. It goes by pretty quickly but the good bits are overwhelmed by a relentless accretion of surfing. For surfers it might be the opposite, too much life and not enough surfing. There is a review of the book in Surfer magazine. It's polite. Great pictures though. Maybe I'm being too harsh when I say he's got a great face for radio: he writes gripping magazine articles but a collection of magazine articles doesn't make a book. I haven't read his other books but that's what I thought of this one.
Profile Image for Eric Kirkman.
188 reviews
August 27, 2015
This was the longest 450 page book I have ever read. This memoir covers the surfing life of New Yorker and New York Times Reporter William Finnegan from his humble upbringing in Souther California and Hawaii, through a southeast Asian/Pacific wanderlust surfing tour with his friend Bryan in his twenties, and ends with a middle-aged father slumming nor'easter chop on the island and the Jersey Shore. If I read one more description of a wave, whether it be how it breaks, whether it's a reef break, where the launch pad is, or how tall it is (hint: there is no real way to measure surf height with surfers) I might intentionally drown my set off the coast of Madeira. This books has slivers of hope. The beginning where he discusses going to high school in Hawaii and all that encompasses being a mainlander who surfs in a notoriously closed society is intriguing. But mostly this book is like a surf journal of Mr. Finnegan. And as is the case with most journals, they bring joy to the author but seldom the reader.
Profile Image for Scott Grossman.
11 reviews9 followers
May 29, 2023

My magnanimous gesture for the prize-winning best seller is rounding up to 2 stars from the 1.5 stars it deserves. This book became more and more painful the deeper I ventured into Finnegan’s tube. By page 380 I’d given up hope. I felt like it was me getting held under and pummeled by wave after literal wave. I think no other book can make readers believe they are the ones drowning--gasping for air under a self-indulgent swell of redundant prose. Did this book not have an editor?

Yet the surf-centric, highly repetitious text is the least of this books failings. How did this flotsam win the Pulitzer? This book’s highly dubious award status says much more about the demographics of the Pulitzer committee than it does about literary merit, which is nil.

“I had never though of myself as a sheltered child,” begins Finnegan in a lazy and amateurish opening that contains a passive verb followed by a negator. A better start: It was NOT a dark and stormy night. His crimes against the reader continue. We learn the conflict for this section, and three more to follow: little Billy must cope with moving back and forth from his stable, upper-middle class home in Woodland Hills, California to the tropical paradise of Oahu, where every day he surfs the break in front of his house. Pobrecito! To engender sympathy, the author details getting his ass kicked in a Hawaiian middle school. And these are the only truly enjoyable parts of this book, reading how the entitled little prick gets the shit kicked out of him, either by a big wave or by a local kid with a beef. In fact, the number of times I myself wanted to kick him in the nuts is equal to the number of pages he filled with his drivel.

Finnegan effortlessly gets accepted into UC Santa Cruz, which is a very good school. But alas, he leaves after only a year. What was his dire reason for dropping out? The school’s lack of “institutional gravity.” Who says that? What a dick!

He returns to Hawaii so he can slum it on Maui. He takes a job in a bookshop where he condescends to the tourists who're there buying coffee table books--instead of buying, what, Ayn Rand? This narrator has no likable qualities, unless the reader likes his obsession with waves and surfing. Which I do not. His tunnel vision for catching waves causes him to treat everyone else like crap: his girlfriends, his family members all fade into the background.

Only other surfer boys are real people to Finnegan.

The crimes continue. He’s in New York City--why, he fails to say--and he hears about a big show upstate featuring Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin called "Woodstock." Except, you know, tickets costs money so Billy won’t go. Dude! How lame are you? Time and again, he paints himself as this giant cheapskate who likes to surf. Soon the author is back on Maui and living like a pig. He tells the reader he's sick of Sly and the Family Stone because his annoying neighbors play the music too loudly. If only William Finnegan had listened through the apartment wall to Sly’s record Fresh, then, for once, he might be Thankful n’ Thoughtful. The book’s enduring theme is this: I’m pretentious, disloyal and selfish. As evidence, he abandons his teenage girlfriend in a remote corner of Greece. They'd been hitchhiking through Europe together (how original) but then Finnegan decided to go do something else, abruptly leaving her behind. What a guy!

Next, Finnegan extends his adolescence into a second decade by hiding out in the recesses of the South Pacific. He and his (one dimensional) buddy are on an epic surfing juggernaut. Here, he abuses the islanders, and not simply his readers. Without the slightest remorse, the author chronicles living off of the backs of impoverished locals he encounters. He shows up in remote island villages, takes advantage of the hospitality, then leaves. All told, Finnegan has given the villagers who’ve washed, cooked, and procured for him next to nothing in return--cheap trinkets from Hong Kong.

We learn this matter gets brought to Finnegan's attention many years later. Someone confronted the author with the reality that he's acted like a complete and total d-bag. Still, he equivocates about his abhorrent treatment of the Pacific Islanders. He concludes that he's unconcerned about his duty to repay people for their work, and unsure about his culpability in their exploitation. Simply put, Finnegan is an imperialist with a surf board. He states point blank he idolizes Ferdinand Magellan. (I'd expand that to include all European colonizers who've exploited in the name of Exploration and Western Progress.) If only the descendants of Lapu-Lapu could've dispatched Billy Finnegan with spears and arrows, as they once did when Old Ferdinand invaded. Time and again, the author shows up uninvited, expecting to be accommodated like a visiting chieftain. But I suppose this was an all too common expectation at the time.

You see, Finnegan is another writer from that Baby Boom Generation of Americans. As such, everything they've ever done in life is by birthright the First, and the Best, and the Greatest. (Ask a random Boomer and they'll generously explain all about their exceptionalism.) The unexamined self-importance of the garden variety Boomer is through the roof and that is how this book reads. It's a penis measuring contest for adult men going on 13. It's raw braggadocio from a population that should feel pangs of shame--and yet somehow never does.

The author arrives in apartheid South Africa and grabs a teaching job at a school for Blacks. Finally, I gasped, the author will redeem himself. The suffering reader will at last be rewarded with a Jaimie Escalante “Stand and Deliver” moment. Not a chance. After some self-congratulatory talk about his hatred for racism Finnegan splits town. The school year is over and he's made his money. The reader keeps reading, waiting, nay praying, for any small glimpse of humility--or even signs of humanity--and the reader is continually disappointed.

Except, what about the surfing? Clearly, you just don’t get it. You don’t mention the bitchin' surf adventure, ya barney!

I know the rushing barrels of the Pacific. I've felt the elevator of fear shoot to the top when I looked down to see a school of sharks beneath the reef. I’ve been inside the timeless cathedral of the hollow tube and know full well its intoxicating allure. In fact, the rating I give the book is largely for one line about surfing: Waves aren’t measured in feet. They’re measured in increments of fear.

Not Finnegan’s own line but he had the sense to propagate it so he gets an extra star. This book still totally sucks. Yup, he’s been to a lot of famous spots. He'd discovered iconic breaks and remote atolls before any of us mortals had even heard of them. He’s forgotten more about surfing than I’ll ever know. All true. He’s still a turd of a man and his book still stinks.

Okay. Big deal. You've taken off on super huge waves and lived to tell. Why doesn't Mr. William Finnegan try something else scary? Try turning into an adult human being before you're well over 40 and too physically diminished to drop in on a short board at a shore break in Montauk. This narrator comes across as entitled, privileged, and entirely out of touch with humanity. In his story he surrounds himself with even more entitled and privileged d-bags and, somehow, he thinks that makes for a good plot.

I can plane rough planks into boards and tack them up with hand forged nails. I can cut fish scale shingles and affix them one by one to a pitched roof. I can dig a perfectly vertical hole and fashion a mother-of-pearl crescent moon for the narrow door. But at the end of the day, it’s still an outhouse and it won’t be too long before it stinks like shit. That is this book: a meticulously constructed shitter, crafted by an asshole who also surfs.
Profile Image for Ayse_.
155 reviews72 followers
July 31, 2017
Barbarian Days is Finnegan's autobiography/memoir of his life as a surfer. His interest in surfing starts at a very young age in California and becomes a real passion when his family moves to Hawaii when he is in middle school.

Finnegan states that surfers are perfectionists. I don't know the others, but he certainly is one. He spends most of his life (almost till the end of his 40s) searching for the perfect wave and perfect place to surf. This journey takes him literally around the world (many stops from Hawaii to South Africa to Australia to Portugal). During his quest; while he is trying to become the best version of his surfer archetype; he is also collecting and publishing stories from island life, anti-communist vs communist movements in Java, Indonesia and Polynesia, the apartheid in South Africa, civil war in El Salvador, etc.

This book had the effect of fresh air on my brain. Didn't know surfing was a serious business. It even has its own jargon, which I liked. I admired the writer for finding the energy and courage to pursue his passion for surfing, actively living his life, building a family and also being able to continue his career so successfully.
Profile Image for James.
Author 13 books1,197 followers
July 3, 2018
Finn Again

This book is not about moonlight on the bayou. It's about structured water. Water, and other media, muscled with vortices.

Feminine Wave, by Hokusai

Feminine Wave, by Hokusai

Profile Image for Aloha.
133 reviews360 followers
August 26, 2017
This is a dazzling book like the glints from the sun on the surfing waves. While there are some philosophy of life and memoir mixed in, the book never deviated from the theme of surfing.
Profile Image for Tania Malik.
Author 2 books24 followers
August 21, 2015
Visceral details and descriptions and insider jargon draws us into the author’s globe-trotting adventures as he chronicles his enduring love for the art of surfing. The search for a clean set of waves influences, shapes, and affects the choices he makes in life, and it is a sweet ride to bob along beside him as he tries to understand what the pursuit of surfing did to his soul.
Profile Image for Bill Vaughn.
Author 5 books6 followers
December 11, 2016

Endless winter One sparkling May afternoon in 1979 I answered a knock at the front door of our house in Missoula to discover a large, angry man. “Bill Finnegan and I vowed that the first one to get back to America would kick your ass,” he said.

My wife had some nice pieces of antique furniture I wanted to spare so I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. “Who are you?”

So began a confrontation that would end peacefully but leave me bewildered.

I had taken a job the year working for Outside, a slick new magazine targeting the burgeoning outdoor adventure crowd. My credentials for this hire had nothing to do with any wilderness skills (although I’ve taken some risks on the backs of horses, I’m only comfortable with sports played in safe, artificial venues, such as tennis.) In fact, I got the job because I had designed and edited a fishing book that made a New York publisher some money (I don’t even fish). There were those who apparently believed that because of my title, Contributing Editor, I was in a position of power. Although I had commissioned my girlfriend at the time to draw some illustrations for my section of the magazine—the equipment reviews in the back—I was not authorized to make feature assignments.

Finnegan and the man on my porch, Bryan Di Salvatore, had been told otherwise by a respected author who led them to believe I would be their contact. So off they went, sailing west across the globe on their surfboards, and sending me pitches for articles they assumed I was sharing with my fellow editors (most of whom had no idea who I was, since they worked in San Francisco and I worked in Montana.)

Di Salvatore and I would become friends, teammates and business associates. He would go on to write extensively for the New Yorker, as would Finnegan, who is still a staff writer. But an account of their over-the-top odyssey would not appear until almost four decades later, in the middle chapters of Barbarian Days.. Reading it, I see now that these adventures indeed would have made ideal hooks for pieces in Outside (exotic locales, dangerous sport, insane bravado). And both of the adventurers had enough literary talent to turn what in lesser hands would degenerate into those dreary and predictable tales of how Me-and-Joe-Went-Surfin’. But at the time I had no idea who these guys were or what they wanted. And if I had, and convinced my superiors to give them an assignment, it might have altered the course of history and deprived me of the pleasure of reading Finnegan’s best–selling memoir.

It begins with his coming-of-age discovery in California and Hawaii of two things that make you feel alive—fist-fighting and surfing. His skirmishes reminded me of the running battles I fought (unlike Finnegan, I never won). Boyhood was different when we were boys, less supervised, less organized, and, at least for white kids, more violent, with shiners, goose eggs and bruises flaunted as badges of courage. While I was living a motherless, feral life exploring the floodplain of the Missouri River Finnegan was a creature of the ocean. The river was devious and dangerous but his world could stop your heart with its terrors. "Waves were the playing field,” he writes. “They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world." Finnegan describes this world with language uncommon in the typically stoned and slurpy literature of surfing: oneiric, pelagic, schadenfreude.

In one passage he describes the expatriate life he and Di Salvatore lived on a snake-infested island in Fiji called Tavarua, a picture of the tropical, Lord of the Flies dreamscape envisioned by boys who want to run away from home. “We reminisced about favorite meals back in the world—fried chicken, big American hamburgers. . . . We made a list of every bar in Missoula, Montana, where either of us had ever had a drink, coming up with fifty-three. We were becoming characters, we knew, in a desert-island cartoon. ‘Do me favor, will you—stop saying entre-nous.’”

Tavarua was also a surfer’s dreamscape. “The wave had a thousand moods,” Finnegan writes, “but in general it got better as it got bigger. At six feet it was easily the best wave either of us had ever seen. Scaled up, the mechanical regularity of the speeding hook gained soul, its roaring, sparkling depths and vaulted ceiling like some kind of recurring miracle.”

Following stints in Bali and Thailand, living in a tree house in Java, Finnegan’s bout with malaria, and crossing the desolate Center of Australia by car, the partnership dissolved and Di Salvatore moved back to Missoula to kick my ass and wallow in a plethora of paper products, leaving Finnegan on the road in India and South Africa for almost another three years. The remote and lonely surfing spots they discovered would be overrun by an army of surfing freebooters, and the renegade sport would become establishment and mainstream.

For me, an inept swimmer uncomfortable with water deeper than a bathtub because things live down there that crave human flesh, Finnegan’s most enlightening passages concern the nature of waves and how to extract from them the thrill of forward motion. As someone who has never stood on a board and never will, I nevertheless came away from Barbarian Days convinced that there is no other sport offering more ego-reducing immersion in the power of the natural world than surfing.
Profile Image for Judith E.
545 reviews191 followers
May 31, 2020
William Finnegan loves surfing so much that he has chased it to the ends of the earth. From a carefree and independent child of the 70’s and surfing the California and Hawaii coasts, to his worldwide pursuit of every imaginable surfing locale, his adventure is elegantly chronicled. Finnegan’s writing is meditative and technical about swells, waves, boards, reefs and weather. His desperate journey is nearly unbelievable at times but it’s clear he has been given a lifetime gift of surfing love and he has been completely dominated by it.

Finnegan narrates the audible presentation and his gentle voice contributes to the zen-like qualities of surfing and the valuable life lessons he has encountered. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,891 reviews218 followers
July 5, 2021
“Everything out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world.”

The author has been obsessed with surfing since he was an adolescent in the 1960s. This book is a memoir of his surfing adventures and their impact on his life. He travels to many parts of the world, including Indonesia, Oceania, Australia, South Africa, and Portugal. He surfs where he lives in the US – Hawaii, California, and New York. This book is well-written and provides lots of local color for countries around the world. The author features several of his fellow surfers and eccentric characters.

There is a vast amount of information contained in this book of the many factors that impact the decision to go out into the elements, such as currents, wind direction, wave types, and reefs. It gets extremely detailed in places. He explains surfing techniques, boards to use in differing conditions, and the surfing culture.

His obsession seems to be partly based on the endless search for the perfect wave and partly on the exhilaration of living life at the edge of danger. It is a book of journeys around the world and journeys in life. It is a story of “man against the sea” and knowing how far to push one’s own capabilities. His descriptions of surfing fiascos are riveting. He almost drowned several times. In these sections, I found myself holding my breath to find out if he would make it, even though he obviously survived to write this book.

This is not a book about surfing competitions. Nor is it about finding the largest waves. It is about how an obsession with surfing that accompanied the author in each of six decades of his life. Pick this one up if you enjoy stories about extreme sports or adventuring.
Profile Image for Carol Storm.
Author 28 books182 followers
December 22, 2020
Barack Obama recommended this book, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. It's easy to see why Obama liked it, since the first few chapters give a really kick-ass description of what it was like to be a teenager in Hawaii in the Sixties. Not only the surf and sun, but the drugs everywhere, the gang fights, the sordid underbelly of the whole tourist scene.

So the first few chapters are really good. It's hard not to root for William Finnegan when he's a kid in Hawaii getting beat up by Samoans and having his board stolen. The problem is, as William grows up, he becomes more and more of a stuck-up, pretentious, know-it-all jerk. He can't just write about the surf, or the breaks, or the bitchin new boards. Oh, no! He has to convince you he's a great philosopher, a heroic knight on a quest, one part Beatnik, one part Percival searching for the Grail.

Typical moment #1. Finnegan is just fifteen when Bobby Kennedy is shot. He gets all misty-eyed, which is nothing original, just Boomer Nostalgia 101. Only not. Because he's at his girlfriend's and they've been making out all night, and she's innocently asleep on the bed while he watches the news. And instead of sharing how she felt, he makes some snotty remark about how they never had much to talk about. And then her dad comes home, and he slithers out the window, and makes some crack about how her dad is stupid too. The genius of Finnegan is so unappreciated in this book! I'm surprised he didn't kick the family dog on the way out, like, "this one's for you, Bobby!"

Typical moment #2. Finnegan's best high school surfing buddy is a tough Italian kid named Domenic, who (needless to say) comes from a less privileged background. Finnegan's dad is a wealthy TV director, and he gives young Domenic a start in the business. So Domenic makes good and later becomes successful in TV. And at Domenic's wedding his father comes up to Finnegan's father and thanks him for making all his boy's success possible. And dear old Finnegan lets us know "it was like a scene from the Godfather." Johnny from the Karate Kid couldn't have said it better. The return of the Sneering Surfer!

Typical moment #3. Finnegan spends not one moment wondering whether he could cut it in combat, or even in basic training. He never writes one paragraph about what Vietnam did to the guys who went. (Some of them were surfers too!) But he's oh, so very careful to suggest that surfing in itself was some kind of antiwar statement, and that the entire surf scene was, and I quote, an antiwar subculture . . . "however incoherently!" I could not stop giggling for about twenty minutes after I read that page.

"However incoherently!" I mean, when I write drama I sound like Shakespeare, however incoherently! And I can explain Einstein's Theory of Relatively really well, however incoherently! And the Confederate States of America was formed to preserve slavery, but most Confederate soldiers were actually against slavery, however incoherently! For the rest of the book I wanted to see "however incoherently" burned into Finnegan's long board . . . or the skin on his behind!

So most of the book is harmless enough. It's just our brilliant genius hero hitting one remote, exotic surf spot after another, boasting about how he got there first, and then bitching about the "tourists" who turn up later. (A tourist is any white person not named Finnegan.) And he's always pulling a humble-brag about the locals, like, "though I quickly realized I could never compete with the legendary Makaha Crew, my respect for these simple surfers and my deep reverence for their bold and authentic style soon won me a place in the lineup." How did Charles Dickens put it? Be humble, Uriah. It's what goes down best!

Oh, speaking of Dickens. Finnegan can't just read James Joyce. He has to tell you he reads James Joyce. And he can't just sing his baby a bedtime song. It has to be a song from Shakespeare! Over and over I kept wondering, "Who is this guy? Why does he have to try so hard? Who is he trying to impress?" But by the end of the book, I just didn't care. Finnegan writes best about things he isn't trying to enjoy, like watching his parents die of old age. His worst writing is always about stuff he he wants you to think he cares about . . . however incoherently!
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,839 reviews393 followers
April 2, 2020
Ode to the Sea

Finnegan recounts a lifetime of surfing and along the way relays epiphanies and the process of self-actualization. 
Surfing, to begin with, was not a "sport." It was a "path."

"Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy."

It is an interesting glass from which to view historical events as they pass by in waves, some which Finnegan rides, others not.
The shortboard revolution was inseparable to the zeitgeist: hippie culture, acid rock, hallucinogens, Neo-Eastern mysticism, the psychedelic aesthetic. "

Insights into the mechanics, the method, and mindset of surfing:
Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.

The rule of thumb is that it will break when the wave height reaches 80 percent of the water's depth. A eight-foot wave will break in ten feet of water.

Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds. They're quick, violent events at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction. Even the most symmetrical breaks have quirks and a totally specific, local character changing with every shift in the tide and wind and swell. The best days at the best days have a Platonic aspect--they begin to embody a model of what surfers want waves to be.

Frustration is a big part of surfing. It's the part we all tend to forget--stupid sessions, waves missed, waves blown, endless-seeming lulls.

Buzzy Trent, an old-time big-wave rider, allegedly said, "Big wavs are not measured in feet, but in increments of fear. [...] The power of a breaking wave does not increase fractionally with height, but as the square of its height. Thus a ten-foot wave is not slightly more powerful than an eight-foot wave---because the leap is not eight to ten but from sixty-four to a hundred, making it over 50 percent more powerful.

From the water's edge, looking out across a stepladder of six or seven walls of cold, growling, onrushing whitewater, the idea of paddling out actually carried with it the whiff of lunacy. The project looked impossible, like trying to swim up a waterfall. It took a literal leap of faith to start.

Mortality. Anyone who's spent enough time in the sea has a moment where they think, 'This is it. Game over.' You've played to close to the edge. You've accepted the price. And the aftermath, the disbelief, the realization that you've escaped.
In fact, this was why most surfers didn't own a board over eight feet; it might raise the question of someday actually going out in conditions that require that much surfboard. Once, in Wise's shop, I heard a surfer mutter as he and his friends studied a 10'0" gun on display, "This one comes with a free pine box."

And glimpses of underlying truths about life in general:
Surf spots are created and destroyed, both naturally and by human enterprise.

This was wonderful. Not a surfer, but having spent thousands of hours in the sea I loved how Finnegan spoke of the ocean. I grew up with warm Caribbean waters so the idea of surfing NY in the winter or off Finland sounds absolutely nuts, but his relationship with the water--I adore.
Profile Image for Mike.
243 reviews8 followers
November 18, 2016
Five stars for surfers, 3.5 for lay people. Lots of detail about waves, weather, paddling, etc that might become repetitive for those who haven't spent a lot of time in the ocean.

Incredible travelogue of surfing the globe, primarily in the '70s and '80s from a writer for the New Yorker. He and a friend were 2 of the first 10 or so people in the world to surf Tavarua, and they would not speak of it by name in the hope that it would remain undiscovered.
Deep insights into the lives of his closest surfing buddies, but to me some of his own contradictions went largely un-commented upon. I would like to see how his travel partner from his biggest trip (also a writer, of books and for the New Yorker) would describe the author. But he describes those closest to him with such depth that I wanted an epilogue telling me where all those people are and what they are doing (sort of like the end of Animal House when we learn Belushi is a Senator, I suppose!).
The only lengthy mention of his working life was as a teacher in a black school in apartheid south Africa. He makes passing comment on all the dangerous reporting he did in war zones and drug gangs - definitely makes me want to read his work from the magazine.
I found his disdain for beginner surfers annoying. (I am one myself so I am talking my book, as they say). Novices are not going to crowd any of the lineups that he would ever surf, so why deny people an amazing experience simply because they weren't lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn as teens?
Profile Image for Michelle Carrell.
476 reviews32 followers
August 5, 2015
The images contained in this book made me feel like I was reading a treasured journal or scrapbook. It made me feel welcome and willing to dive deep into FInnegan's memories. Which, by the way, I am severely jealous of his superb memory. I could almost smell the salt in the air and faintly hear the waves off in the distance. I could taste the author's fear, I reveled in his happiness and sympathized with his childhood troubles. Very well written. I am very honored to have won this book in a goodreads giveaway.
Profile Image for Michelle Curie.
739 reviews366 followers
September 20, 2020
"Surfing, to begin with, was not a sport. It was a path. And the more you poured into it, the more you got back from it."

More than any other thing we call sport, surfing encompasses an entire lifestyle. I've been to and lived by seas often enough to know that feeling of connection to it is addictive and inexplicable at the same time. This memoir tapped into that, exploring what it means to dedicate your life to a passion.

William Finnegan is a renowned writer at the New Yorker and while he addresses racism, poverty and politics in his work, this memoir addresses what he is at core – a surfer. Raised in California and Hawaii in the 60s and 70s, he started surfing as a child and simply never stopped. In this book, we follow him as he grows older, as his life changes, as he chases waves all over the world.

"The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure."

His writing is dense, lively and skilled. Man, he did make those beaches come alive. His prose feels simple, but his words are carefully chosen – he doesn't ramble, there's no forced visuality, no stacks of adjectives in desperate attempts to make his words come alive. The detail with which he describes the circumstances of each surfing sessions are sometimes amusing, occasionally frustrating, especially in earlier sections when one isn't used the abundance of surfer terminology yet (we've got everything from drop-knee cutbacks, nose-riding and barrels in here). But while this might require some kind of effort, it ultimately adds to the reading experience and only get the point of his passion and dedication across.

This is more than just a book about a surfer dude. Finnegan made the eras he was writing about come to life for me – growing up in the the wild 60s and 70s followed by equally tumultuous 80s and more responsible 90s and 00s. There was something touching about seeing him age and grow over the time of this account and by that he ended up not just sharing what it means to lead a surfing life, but what it means to be a human in a world ever-changing. The passage where he, in New York, witnesses his very personal obsession become a world-wide marketing phenomena made me think about how there is definitely more to surfing than meets the eye. Things you can't and will never understand if you book your three-day beginner's course on your next beach vacation to Portugal.

"Because I sometimes feel like my private life, a not-small corner of my soul, is being laid out for hawking, anything from consumer loans to light trucks, on commercial surfaces everywhere I look, including, lately, taxicab TVs."

This was a touching and absorbing read that made me ponder and get excited. I can see how this might seem to drag on if you don't care about surfing whatsoever, but there are other reasons to like this, too. Because what would a life without passion truly be?
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,353 reviews451 followers
June 1, 2020
For those of us who have never surfed and never will, the sport has always held a mystic otherworldly glamor incorporating a strength of purpose that is almost superhuman. From an early age, surfing was part of Finnegan's DNA, thanks in large part to the freedom he enjoyed as a kid first in California, then, Hawaii. His father, working in the film industry, was largely responsible, not only because of these locations being necessary for his work, but also because of one remembered incident when the young William almost gave up the sport after a grueling outing, and his father encouraged him to take one more wave. He admits he might have given it up then.

But over the years, his indulgent parents allowed him to follow his bliss. Again, for the many of us who will never experience this first hand, the technical information may be daunting, but it provides a more complete explanation for the obsession. As with many things in today's world, the sport has become so accessible to a wide population, making difficult the solitude and conventions that were important to Finnegan and his companions. As he has gotten older, the magnitude of the sport still has the power to overwhelm Finnegan ("Being adjacent to that much beauty -- more than adjacent; immersed in, pierced by it -- was the point. The physical risks were footnotes.") But age does happen whether we like it or not, and at a time when the population of surfers has taken over previously "secret" spots, Finnegan has found other ways to enjoy water that don't involve a board. I was also interested in reading about his friendship with John Selya, a dancer whose performances I have enjoyed many times, even within the past year. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Monika / siemamoniaczyta.
358 reviews125 followers
February 3, 2022
"Dni barbarzyńców" to książka, która sama w sobie jest podróżą. Nie tylko przez świat, jaki ogląda autor, ale też przez jego życie. Życie pełne różnych ludzi i miejsc, a przede wszystkim surfingu. No właśnie, nie żeby mnie to jakoś zaskoczyło, bo ta książka jest opisywana jako opowieść o wielkiej pasji do tego sportu, ale mam poczucie, że było tego jednak za dużo. Skłamałabym twierdząc, że mnie to nie zaczęło w pewnej chwili nudzić. Prawda jest taka, że nudziło i nawet naprawdę pięknie opisywane fale nie były tu w stanie pomóc. Sam początek jest pod tym względem najciekawszy - dowiadywanie się o tym, jak Finnegan odnajdywał w sobie miłość do surfingu, jak się go uczył i jak próbował oswoić się z wodą było naprawdę interesujące. Potem nastąpiła tendencja spadkowa.
Wolałabym, żeby miejsce tych powtarzalnych opisów sportu zajęły opisy ludzi, którymi autor się w różnych miejscach otaczał, kultur, z jakimi się stykał. To miałoby wartość dla większej liczby czytelników, niż tylko tych zakochanych w surfingu.
Nie da się jednak tej książce odmówić tego, że napisana została w tak płynny i zaciekawiający sposób, że trudno się od niej oderwać. Sama byłam aż zaskoczona, jak bardzo przekonała mnie do siebie dosłownie od samego początku.
Profile Image for Craig MacIntosh.
Author 19 books6 followers
July 29, 2015
Loving this story...I lived it, at least the Hawaii part. Ten years older than Finnegan, my Hawaiian surfing days were rudely interrupted by a summons from Uncle Sam. It would be twenty years before I picked up surfing again. Finnegan nails the lure of the waves perfectly. He's brutally honest about his man/child existence from his high school years on. Traveling to exotic surf spots and exploring reefs across the South Pacific takes him around the world. Great eye for details in a colorful, at times "stream of consciousness" writing, gives Finnegan an edge of the usual "Beach boy" tale. Unashamed of his hedonistic lifestyle and sometimes youthful larceny, Finnegan bares all in this intimate memoir. Looking back at a lifestyle most only dream about, the author doesn't sugarcoat his narcissism or his hand-to-mouth life as a surf bum. Enjoyed his mature take on those early years when he left a trail of broken promises and hearts...and endured his own betrayals and broken heart affairs. Surfers will love the tale, landlocked readers will marvel at the adventures but wonder at the obsession with waves. Part travelogue and part confessional, "Barbarian Days" is worth the effort.
Profile Image for Liza Fireman.
839 reviews144 followers
February 9, 2017
I guess this book can be awesome for someone that loves surfing. I found it way too long and repetitive. William Finnegan is moving through his life, from continent to continent, and there is a lot of surfing on the way. Some great description, but could be easily cut in half.

The first part, set in California and Hawaii, is the strongest. It talks about Finnegan's childhood and his discovery of surfing.
In the second part, his friend and him are going around the world, finding out great surfing places. It seems like talking about other surfers (and mostly being really happy not having them around) is one big topic of the book. I realized that I had finally got what I wanted: there were no other surfers around.

Surfing is his life. It is an addiction. It is the most important thing, and almost everything. Chicks had to realize, he said, that when they married a surfer, they married surfing. They had to either adapt or split. “It’s like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper,” he said. “I mean a total fanatic. You’d have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.” Personally, that makes it really tough to connect with the book.

You'll never forget that you're reading a surfing book. And I am not excited enough for this sport unfortunately. About 2.5 stars, that could be over 3 stars if it was much shorter.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,628 reviews326 followers
January 2, 2021
First-rate book. You should read my GR friend Vivian's take, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
-- by "a mermaid who has lost her tail,
longing for the sea." Woot!

And jrendocrine's, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
"Honestly, Finnegan's writing is reminiscent of Proust." !!

Most highly recommended. I have next to no interest in surfing, although I like to watch them for a few minutes. Can't imagine hangin out for hours in the cold Calif water, waiting for a wave...
But I recommend his *book* without reservations. I expect to reread it sometime.

I did go body-surfing one time in Kauaii. Got caught in a BIG wave, tumbled around on the bottom awhile. Good thing I got a deep breath first! Wave tore off my brand-new Seiko diving watch. I was by myself, on a remote beach on the north shore, skinny-dipping. The things we do when we're young & stupid! Hey, at least the water was warm....
Profile Image for georgina cole.
26 reviews1 follower
March 11, 2021
Didn't finish. I'm not sure why on earth this won a Pulitzer. It needed some major editing.
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