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Review: "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life," by William Finnegan


Recommended by a friend, I wanted to like this book and found it, fair. Actually, it was a touch better than my opening sentence, but only just. I cannot say that I am familiar with Mr. Finnegan's long career in journalism. It may very well be that I have read some of his essays and investigative pieces in the New York Times or New Yorker, but was simply not paying attention to his byline. If I had, I might have found this book more engaging. Another oblique way into the book might have been if I was a surfer. But I'm not, therefore approaching it from the outside I hoped that it might stand alone, but for me, it missed. That's not to say that it's poorly written because that would not be true. Actually, the most interesting parts of the book were pieces about his friendships, family and the apparent ups and downs in relationships and life as he moved through decades of life searching for waves. In truth, the most, (surfers forgive me) boring sections of the book were the detailed, ongoing, constant and almost biblical rendering of the waves, the rides, the surfs. I did learn a lot about surfing, read about the differences of boards, and picked up some forgettable terminology, but it just didn't capture me. I guess it's truly one of those experiences that you "had to be there". Hardly a barbarian, the title gives Mr. Finnegan more credit as an intelligent person who romanticized his surfing life as opposed to being an itinerant wanderer focused on his own passion. That's neither good nor bad, and in some respect to be admired. Finnegan needed to live this life and would have lied to himself had he done otherwise. Perhaps the ending is most informative as Mr. Finnegan reflects that the wave, the ocean, the ride, is and always will be there, waiting. It's up to the individual to seek for it, to try and find it.