Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
A Surfing Life

78%

25 Critic Reviews

The book nevertheless provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession. A lyrical and intense memoir.
-Kirkus

Synopsis

**Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography**

*Included in President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List*

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 whitesonly 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.

 

About William Finnegan

See more books from this Author
William Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. He is the author of A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters; and Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of 1986 by The New York Times Book Review. He was a National Magazine Award finalist in both 1990 and 1995. He lives in New York City with his wife.From the Hardcover edition.
 
Published July 21, 2015 by Penguin Books. 466 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Sports & Outdoors, Travel, Action & Adventure. Non-fiction
Bestseller Status:
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Critic reviews for Barbarian Days
All: 25 | Positive: 23 | Negative: 2

Kirkus

Good
on Apr 21 2015

The book nevertheless provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession. A lyrical and intense memoir.

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Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Apr 24 2015

Surfing (mostly) remains a man’s world, and Finnegan’s attempts to mention the women he loved seem like afterthoughts. Nevertheless, he has written a revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful addiction.

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NY Times

Above average
Reviewed by Dwight Garner on Jul 21 2015

...one takes away from “Barbarian Days” a sense of a big, wind-chapped, well-lived life. Mr. Finnegan has moved about the earth like a man in a ballad, testing himself at every opportunity...

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NY Times

Good
Reviewed by THAD ZIOLKOWSKI on Jul 13 2015

The compromises and corruption on shore fail to contaminate or alter the joy-drenched, adrenalated play in the ocean. Wave and surfer are ageless. For surfing is a pagan mystery cult after all. And “Barbarian Days” is its “Confessions.”

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Guardian

Good
Reviewed by Geoff Dyer on Aug 19 2015

To this fully qualified outsider – I live by the ocean without ever having set thigh in it, but I have seen Point Break three times – Barbarian Days gradually assumes the form of a hefty masterpiece.

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Guardian

Above average
Reviewed by Ed Caesar on Aug 14 2015

Reading these pages engenders deep nostalgia for travel in the pre-internet and pre-mobile phone days...It would have been interesting to understand more about how this obsession had intersected with his marriage.

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NPR

Good
Reviewed by Drew Toal on Jul 21 2015

In a sense, Barbarian Days functions as a 450-page thank you letter, masterfully crafted, to his parents, friends, wife, enemies...everyone who tolerated and even encouraged his lifelong obsession. It's a way to help them — and us — understand what drives him to keep paddling out half a century after first picking up a board.

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Book Reporter

Good
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on Jul 21 2015

Filled with exotic surfing slang-uage and rhapsodic descriptions of water, sand, rocks and air, BARBARIAN DAYS will attract armchair surfers and real wave riders alike. Finnegan rode the cultural waves of his youth and brought an ethos back home.

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The Independent

Above average
Reviewed by Janette Wolf on Sep 14 2015

Barbarian Days assumes no specialist knowledge, though it might test the attention span of those without. Every wave is recalled with brilliant clarity, the exhilaration of every adrenaline-charged take off relived, every wipeout laid bare.

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The Independent

Above average
Reviewed by Janette Wolf on Sep 13 2015

Barbarian Days assumes no specialist knowledge, though it might test the attention span of those without...It is a thrilling mix of travelogue and adventure yarn, recalling Jack London with its fearless intrepidity. But above all it is an act of homage to ocean gods both merciless and majestic.

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Christian Science Monitor

Good
Reviewed by Tess Taylor on Aug 03 2015

Finnegan now builds sentences, and he – who once shunned even using a surfboard leash – may now be more tethered, but he’s certainly captured those colorful splashings for the rest of us. In this book, the depths shimmer.

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Dallas News

Good
Reviewed by MICHAEL E. YOUNG on Jul 17 2015

Finnegan’s epic adventure, beautifully told, is much more than the story of a boy and his wave, even if surfing serves as the thumping heartbeat of his life.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Good
Reviewed by Antoine Wilson on Jul 23 2015

The proof is in the sentences. Were I given unlimited space to review this book, I would simply reproduce it here, with a quotation mark at the beginning and another at the end.

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Open Letters Monthly

Good
Reviewed by Steve Donoghue on Aug 16 2015

In that strange, wistful sub-genre, Barbarian Days stands out as a landmark of eloquence and energy. The New Yorker will doubtless by tendering the author a generous raise, if they’re smart.

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Denver Post

Good
Reviewed by John Lancaster on Aug 16 2015

Finnegan went back to Tavarua anyway, multiple times. He couldn't help himself — the waves there were too good. He "didn't want this to end." And neither, by the end of this fine book, do we.

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The Sydney Morning Herald

Good
Reviewed by Phil Jarratt on Sep 19 2015

Finnegan may never write on surfing again. He probably doesn't need to. His depiction of himself may not always endear him to you, but the quality of this heartfelt memoir cements his place in the pantheon of great writing on surfing.

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The Sydney Morning Herald

Good
Reviewed by Gordon Peake on Aug 28 2015

All writers are wracked by insecurity. It seems to come with the territory. With this big Kahuna​ of a book, I'm hope Finnegan has put a lot of his to rest. Highly recommended.

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Newsday

Good
Reviewed by Marion Winik on Jul 21 2015

"Barbarian Days" demolishes the stereotype of the surfer as someone with "nothing but blue sky between his ears." While not all wave-riders read "Ulysses" or write for The New Yorker, they do, in Finnegan's telling, form a highly specialized breed of scientist-athletes.

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Jacksonville.com

Good
Reviewed by Matt Soergel on Jul 23 2015

It’s easily the best book ever written about surfing. It’s not even close. “Barbarian Days” never talks down to surfers; it’s clear that Finnegan, 62, is a willing co-conspirator, a fellow addict.

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The National

Good
Reviewed by Richard Hoffer on Aug 27 2015

That he finally makes sense of his compulsion, which even he admits is troublingly useless, elevates a surf book into the upper reaches of memoir.

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South China Morning Post

Good
Reviewed by MICHAEL E. YOUNG on Aug 15 2015

Finnegan's epic adventure, beautifully told, is much more than the story of a boy and his wave, even if surfing serves as the thumping heartbeat of his life.

Read Full Review of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

The Australian

Good
Reviewed by Fred Pawle on Aug 22 2015

Attempts to describe surfing can be embarrassing even in the hands of great writers, but Finnegan knows how to avoid cliches.

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Wichita Eagle

Below average
Reviewed by Gaylord Dold on Oct 18 2015

...by turns compelling and tedious...As Finnegan heads the book off around the world, it turns boring...

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https://www.bostonglobe.com

Above average
Reviewed by James Zug on Jul 18 2015

Just one caveat. Finnegan borrows from his brilliant, two-part 1992 New Yorker piece on surfing. That is standard practice. But he also lifts a couple of lines, some lists, a few phrases from his first book...It is a quirky, minor detail that, in the end, doesn’t detract at all from this deep blue story of one man’s lifelong enchantment.

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http://www.theepochtimes.com

Good
Reviewed by Chelsea Scarnegie on Sep 02 2015

Perhaps only a true surfer would fully understand, but “Barbarian Days” makes it a little clearer for the rest of us.

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Reader Rating for Barbarian Days
89%

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Leselle Leuterio

Leselle Leuterio 17 Jul 2015

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