Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
A surfer’s story written in witty, literary prose, Barbarian Days tells the honest truth about what life was like before every wave was a known commodity. Finnegan’s ability to describe waves and the experience of surfing translates well to both those familiar with the sport and the uninitiated. A can’t-miss read for the lover of a great, true story. It won the Pulitzer Prize to boot. Recommended By Angelo R., Powells.com
This lush and glorious ode to surfing is also an absorbing coming-of-age story. William Finnegan's memoir isn't merely a book about a sport, but rather a vivid and incandescent tale of obsession, self-discovery, and transformation. With writing both fluid and perceptive, Finnegan transports his readers to another world. Recommended By Rebekah A., Powells.com
William Finnegan is a lifelong surfer and a long-term staff writer for the New Yorker. Through this combination of writing talent and surfing skill, he is able to explain convincingly why so many surfers become obsessed with the sport. Finnegan writes especially well about the difficulty in balancing a consuming activity with the demands of work and family. He also honestly conveys his struggles to keep his ego and competitive instincts in check as his physical ability declines with age. You don't need to be a surfer to enjoy Barbarian Days (though it may turn you into one). Recommended By Shawn D., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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 nosesoff 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, Finnegans surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar.
“Panoramic and fascinating…The core of the book is a surfing chronicle,
and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides…A revealing and
magisterial account of a beautiful addiction.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession. A lyrical and intense memoir.” Kirkus
“An up-close and personal homage to the surfing lifestyle through the
author’s journey as a lifelong surfer. Finnegan’s writing is polished
and bold…[A] high-caliber memoir.” Library Journal
“Terrific…Elegantly written and structured, it’s a riveting adventure
story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching
meditation on love, friendship and family…A writer of rare subtlety and
observational gifts, Finnegan explores every aspect of the sport — its
mechanics and intoxicating thrills, its culture and arcane tribal codes —
in a way that should resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike. His
descriptions of some of the world’s most powerful and unforgiving waves
are hauntingly beautiful…Finnegan displays an honesty that is evident
throughout the book, parts of which have a searing, unvarnished
intensity that reminded me of Stop Time, the classic coming-of-age
memoir by Frank Conroy.” Washington Post
About the Author
William Finnegan is the author of Cold New World, A Complicated War, Dateline Soweto, and Crossing the Line. He has twice been a National Magazine Award finalist and has won numerous journalism awards, including two Overseas Press Club awards since 2009. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987, he lives in Manhattan.