Review: Barbarian Days, A Surfer’s Life by William Finnegan

I can’t tell you why I picked up Barbarian Days – nothing else in the store inspired me at the time, and I had a lot of time on my hands (hardly a reason to spend a tenner and commit to 450 pages). Still, there are good reasons for picking this up above anything else – it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award back in 2016, and Finnegan writes for the New Yorker. I was pretty sure I was in safe hands.


Barbarian Days is Finnegan’s memoir of a life well surfed – his youth on Hawaii, his first waves in California, his endless winter chasing waves around the pacific, trips to Fiji and Madeira, and his current wave off the cost of Manhattan.

“When you surf, as I then understood it, you live and breathe waves. You always know what the surf is doing. You cut school, lose jobs, lose girlfriends, if it’s good.”

When it comes to surfing, Finnegan is passionate, obsessed even. Barbarian Days is a peak into waters that run far deeper than I ever expected – this is more than a tale of a kid learning to stand up on a board as a wave rolls in for cheap thrills.

Out on the waves a social hierarchy is learned, your place in the pecking order constantly asserted and relentlessly under attack. The way you flick your hair or wipe your nose after a catching a wave all count. What about the board? A big gun for big waves can make you look like an amateur (or worse, an old timer) if the wave isn’t big enough, but a small one isn’t going to cut it when the surf gets rough.

What about the waves? How big they are, the shape, height, and force of them. Their direction, speed, and the way they break.

Which is to say nothing of the dangers – does the wave break over coral? Or into a harbour wall? Or maybe some cliffs? And if it does, is the risk of killing yourself on them worth the reward of taking it on and succeeding?

And he knows all of this, in an impressive amount of detail, for what feels like thousands of waves. Yep, if you love waves, then Barbarian Days is for you. If you’re a newcomer, it’s going to test your patience by maybe the thirtieth wave…

Obsession is definitely the right word for it.

“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.”

Hidden in between the waves, we see Finnegan grow up and eventually grow old. He forges friendships based on surfing, making new friends as he moves from wave to wave. He teaches, begins to write, gets married, has kids and somewhere in the middle of it all, learns to live for something else besides the next wave.

But is it any good? Well yes and no. I don’t think I’ve read a book on surfing that affected me as much as this one*. In one passage he describes how he caught a wave to look down at the ocean, to see the boulders beneath him. Whilst the wave was moving, he was not – he was on the board, standing still at high speed. I read it open-mouthed, and then put the book down to spend my entire lunch break looking out the window just thinking about it.

On the other hand, it can feel like all of Finnegan’s energy and passion is saved for the waves. His co-surfers hardly leap off the pages – they begin to feel like they’re a vehicle for him to introduce the next wave he’s going to write about.

For all that, I enjoyed it. Finnegan manages to capture a world I’d never much thought of before, making me want to run in a straight line to the nearest stretch of coast. Yes it’s indulgent, but that’s no bad thing – his passion for surfing is so all encompassing that when I flicked Barbarian Days shut, it felt like I was coming up for air. 

*the only one that came anywhere near was Breath by Tim Winton – best review I’ve read of it so far is on Steve Standing still’s blog here if you’re interested.

So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!

I don’t have anything similar that I’ve reviewed, but there are a few that give a similar sense of the role of sport in life here:

Review: The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn - Probably the finest baseball book you'll ever read...
Review: Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game? by Jimmy Breslin - The '62 Mets - the worst team in baseball history. It had me smiling from start to finish, laughing out loud every ten minutes, and nostalgic for a team I've never even seen.

2 thoughts on “Review: Barbarian Days, A Surfer’s Life by William Finnegan

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