The Saturday Read – William Finnegan ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’

When you do a book reading in Manhattan Beach, California you need to use a microphone so the guys with ‘surfer’s ear’ in the back can understand you. Last night New Yorker journalist and lifetime surfer William Finnegan used a mic as he read from his well reviewed new book and this week’s ‘Saturday Read’, ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’.

The Q&A at the reading was closer to a book club discussion than a publicity event. Most of those attending had either read the book or the excerpt in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This is not just a book about surfing. Mr. Finnegan is a well regarded journalist with a resume that includes reporting from South Africa, Somalia, the Balkans, Central America and Australia. Robert Boynton included him in his conversations with America’s best nonfiction writers in ‘The New New Journalism’.

“A self-described “specialist in the unexpected,” Finnegan writes stereotype-defying descriptions of the kinds of people—young, black, poor, foreign—mainstream journalism tends to dismiss with a pastiche of clichés and statistics.”

It’s this specialization in the unexpected that results in a memoir not just about surfing for surfers, but about life and friendship, as noted in The New York Times review:

“…a particularly remarkable feature of “Barbarian Days” is the generous yet unsparing portraits of competitive surf friendships that make up a major share of the narrative. As Finnegan writes: “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.”

He first wrote about surfing in ‘Playing Doc’s Games’, profiling Mark Renneker for The New Yorker in 1992. Twenty three years later Doc returns along with a global cast of supporting characters inviting the reader to go out with them on the water.

Why should a non-surfer invest in a memoir subtitled ‘A Surfing Life’? Because it’s an everyman’s story of reconciling passions.

At the reading the author described surfing as “the North Pole of irresponsibility, the opposite of achievement. War reporting had a built in urgency, surfing did not.” He has spent 50 years managing the opposition between two drives: writing and chasing waves.

Surfers are our environmental ‘canaries in a coal mine’. Responding to a question on how surfing differs from other sports, the author focused on the “98% of surfing that is an absorption in the ocean, what your local spot is, how well you read the waves and ride. Surfing is not competitive, it’s an experience of beauty – an understanding and engagement with nature.”

Near the end of the book he refers to an A.J. Liebling essay, ‘Apology for Breathing’ noting that “Liebling was pretending to apologize for being from New York, a city he loved lavishly and precisely. Now I’m one of those New Yorkers incessantly on the point of going back where I came from. But with me it’s not a matter of packing up or staying on, but rather of being always half poised to flee my desk and ditch engagements in order to throw myself into some nearby patch of ocean at the moment when the waves and wind and tide might conspire to produce something ridable. That cracking, fugitive patch is where I come from.”

‘Barbarian Days’ is a beach book. It’s an ocean book. It’s a memoir to guide you to your own story and “that cracking, fugitive patch” where you come from.

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