Book Review: Barbarian Days, By William Finnegan

The image came from The Surfing Journal, see the link below to read their review.

I had this book on my wish list for a couple of years, the price exceeded my 10-dollar limit. But, I had a very bad day a couple of weeks ago, and one of my self-care tools is a big, juicy book, so I splurged on Mr. Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

I am not a surfer; I have a healthy fear of the ocean. I don’t swim well enough to do anything but enjoy it from the sidelines.  I do admire those who spend time in the ocean though.  It’s a joy to see the surfer boys, and a few girls, on their bikes, carrying a beat-up board to the beach.

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Finnegan before reading Barbarian Days.  He is a writer deserving of the Pulitzer. This is a gorgeous book.

This is what I loved about it.

He talks about waves with all the surf jargon and science, but it somehow alchemizes into a language I understood. I still don’t know the terms, I can’t look at a wave and explain it to you, but I felt like I understood what he saw and felt. That is great writing.

He tells the truth. He shares himself many times, his fears, and what it’s like for him to be a man and son and father, in and out of the water.  It isn’t hokey, macho, or instructive. He is human, and humane throughout.

He shares his joy. Repeatedly. There are so many passages of his moments with the ocean that are sheer beauty, his ability to convey this, including me in something I will never know, was a gift. Thank you, Mr. Finnegan.

He can make the same experience, surfing, engaging for a novice for almost 500 pages. I’m a big skimmer, I hardly skimmed this book.

This is a book about a person who has used the medium of water, an element in its most powerful manifestation as his self-discovery path. Because he is truly on the hero’s journey, he is obsessed with his medium.  What matters about it is his generosity in sharing the journey with us, and what it means to submerge ourselves in self-actualization. The book could have been about painting, or cooking, any great passion, though I’m glad it wasn’t. It’s priceless for those of us who can not partake of the waves to have an opportunity to experience them from the safety of our reading chair.

Sometimes I read a book on my tablet and I know it is a book I want to own. To see it on my shelf, to pick it up sometimes, smell it, hold it, open it at random, and have a sip. This is one of those books.

“We will not fear, though the earth give way, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam.”

Psalm 46

This quote is from the last paragraph, though I won’t share Mr. Finnegan’s final sentences, I will say, they are more beautiful than the psalm.

Review from someone who knows a lot more about surfing than me.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Barbarian Days, By William Finnegan

  1. Thanks for this, Abby! Great review! I just downloaded it from the public library! I took surfing lessons at UCSD one winter and fashioned myself a surfer that year living in SD, driving my girlfriend’s dad’s long board to the beach and mostly paddling and catching waves for just about 10 seconds before falling

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