Barbarian Days: Book summary and reviews of Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days

A Surfing Life

by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' rating:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published in USA  Jul 2015
    464 pages
    Genre: Biographies/Memoirs

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this book

Book Summary

A deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer by the acclaimed New Yorker writer. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.

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.

Read a Sample

Click to the right or left of the sample to turn the page.
(If no book jacket appears in a few seconds, then we don't have an excerpt of this book or your browser is unable to display it)

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2016

Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. 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

"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

"A fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession. A lyrical and intense memoir." - Kirkus Reviews

"How many ways can you describe a wave? You'll never get tired of watching Finnegan do it. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he leads a counterlife as an obsessive surfer, traveling around the world, throwing his vulnerable, merely human body into line after line of waves in search of transient moments of grace…It's an occupation that has never before been described with this tenderness and deftness." - -TIME Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2015

"Terrific…Elegantly written and structured…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

"The kind of book that makes you squirm in your seat on the subway, gaze out the window at work, and Google Map the quickest route to the beach ... a semi-dangerous book, one that persuades young men…to trade in their office jobs in order to roam the world, to feel the ocean's power, and chase the waves." - The Paris Review Daily

"Fans of [Finnegan's] writing have been waiting eagerly for his surfing memoir…[Finnegan]'s observant and expressive but shows careful restraint in his zeal. He says only what needs to be said, enough to create a vivid picture for the reader while masterfully giving that picture a kind of movement." - Honolulu Star-Advertiser

"It's easily the best book ever written about surfing. It's not even close." - Florida Times-Union

"Finnegan's imagery is as vividly rendered as a film, his explanation of wave mastery a triumph of language. For surfers, the book is The Endless Summer writ smarter and larger, touching down at every iconic break." - Los Angeles Magazine

"Vivid and propulsive…A lyrical and enormously rewarding read…Finnegan's enchantment takes us to some luminous and unsettling places — on both the edge of the ocean, and the frontiers of the surfing life." - San Diego Union-Tribune

"Barbarian Days gleams with precise, often lyrical recollections of the most memorable waves [Finnegan has] encountered…He's always attuned to his surroundings, and his reflections are often tinged with self-effacing wit."- Chicago Reader

"Extraordinary…There are too many breathtaking, original things in Barbarian Days to do more than mention here—observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well." - The New York Times Book Review

"Without a doubt, the finest surf book I've ever read…it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world." - The New York Times Magazine

"Barbarian Days is an utterly convincing study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing…As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing. " - The New York Review of Books

"Finnegan is an excellent surfer; at some point he became an even better writer . . . Finnegan is a virtuoso wordsmith, but the juice propelling this memoir is wrung from the quest that shaped him…A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard." - Sports Illustrated

"Overflowing with vivid descriptions of waves caught and waves missed, of disappointments and ecstasies and gargantuan curling tubes that encircle riders like cathedrals of pure stained glass…This memoir is one you can ride all the way to shore." - Entertainment Weekly

"[A] sweeping, glorious memoir…Oh, the rides, they are incandescent…it's also about a writer's life and, even more generally, a quester's life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than any I've read in a long time." - Los Angeles Times

"Gorgeously written and intensely felt…Dare I say that we all need Mr. Finnegan…as a role model for a life fully, thrillingly, lived." - Wall Street Journal

"An evocative, profound and deeply moving memoir…The gift for writing a clean line is rare, and the gift for riding one even rarer. Finnegan possesses both." - San Francisco Chronicle

"Finnegan writes so engagingly that you paddle alongside, eager for him to take you to the next wave…Surfing is the backbone of the book, but Finnegan's relationships to people, not waves, form its flesh…[A] deep blue story of one man's lifelong enchantment." - Boston Globe

"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." - Dallas Morning News

"Finnegan describes, with shimmering detail, his adventures riding waves on five continents ... It's a book about travel and growing up, and the power of a pastime when it becomes an obsession." - Men's Journal

"With a compelling storyline and masterful prose, Finnegan's beautiful memoir is sure to resonate." - The New York Observer

"Fearless and full of grace." - Outside Magazine

"Irresistible." - O, The Oprah Magazine

"It's always fabulous when an incredible writer happens to also have a memoir-worthy life; Barbarian Days bodes well." - GQ.com

"A demonstration of gratitude and mastery. [Finnegan] uses these words to describe the wave, but they might as well apply to the book. ... 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." - NPR.org

"[A] lyrical, intellectual memoir. The author touches on love, on responsibility, on politics, individuality and morality, as well as on the lesser-known aspects of surfing: the toll it takes on the body, the weird lingo, the whacky community. Finnegan's world is as dazzling and deep as any ocean. It's a pleasure to paddle into and makes for a hell of a ride." - The Millions

The information about Barbarian Days shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

More Information

More Information

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

More Recommendations

Readers Also Browsed . . .

more biographies/memoirs...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice


Book Discussion
Book Jacket
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

"A powerful, provocative debut ... Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental." - Kirkus, starred review

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Never Coming Back
    by Alison McGhee

    A moving exploration of growing up and growing old, and the ties that bind parents and children.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win House of Shadows

"A rising star"
- Publishers Weekly

Three women. Four centuries. A tangle of romance, deceit and destiny...

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

H D T Grab Y?

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.