Barbarian Days

Barbarian Days

A Surfing Life

Book - 2015
Average Rating:
Rate this:
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 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 whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a native 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.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2015.
ISBN: 9781594203473
Characteristics: 447 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment

diesellibrarian Nov 27, 2017

Growing up landlocked, I had no chance at becoming a surfer. Nevertheless, I have always been endlessly fascinated by every aspect of surfing. Now well into my middle age, I know that I will never be more than a "kook," but that hasn't quelled my enthusiasm for this beautiful vocation. "Barbarian Days" helped me to understand what it means to be a surfer: it's the ever-present draw of the wave. It's a thread woven into the fabric of one's life: an underlying theme that colours every decision, every choice. Finnegan beautifully captures the essence of the surfer's life, unpacking it in such a way that even us "kooks" can grasp the joy and beauty and its inextricable connection to danger and loss. There are broader lessons here, and something to meditate upon (for me, at least), for years to come.

For other great autobiographical surf writing check out "Caught Inside" and "On A Wave."

Nov 17, 2017

Finnegan not only has a life time's experience to tell of chasing waves but also the analytical rigour of an excellent writer to embellish his story with retrospection and introspection. His love of surfing approaches an art form in its obsessive attention but remains highly entertaining to read.

Aug 16, 2017

Clearly the best surfing odyssey written to date. Finnegan is a very fine writer, and a well-read writer. There are some highly educated surfers around the world, and I am heartened that someone with a literary cast of mind finally decided to tell his tale in well articulated prose, at times invigorating, even beautiful. I also enjoyed the fact that the story is not filled with drug-crazed adventures punctuated by titillating sexual exploits that so often mar much of the surfing opus. Since I am the same age as the author, I could fully identify with much of the culture in which he found himself, especially the California surf culture in which I played a very nominal role, but fondly remembered. I've also visited many of the places mentioned in Finnegan's adventures, which added to the thrill of reliving a surfing life, though mine did not last as long as Finnegan's. The writing is so good that even non-surfers will find much to enjoy here. It's a great ride.

Jul 01, 2017

If you're not a surfer, may be a bit too technical. Lots of wave talk.

Jun 06, 2017

I couldn't get into it... I really tried, got all the way to chapter six. I think the author has so much to share about his experiences that it got lost in translation a bit. I am also going to agree with the comment below, and say this is more a man's book. I am a 23 year old female and although I appreciated the superb writing, I couldn't stay with or follow the story.

Mar 26, 2017

Won the Pulitzer, a memoir of an obsessive surfer who traveled the world looking for that perfect wave. He is about my age so following the political landscape of his life was interesting but this is really a man's book.

Nov 10, 2016

Interesting and well-written account of the life of a die-hard surfer. Having lived and surfed in the same era, there was much to relate to, and much more of interest to those of us who veered away from the surfing life as we took more conventional paths, often wondering---and sometimes dreaming---what life would have been life if we instead took off on that lifelong surfing safari. Finnegan lets us share the journey of a the hard core surfbum.

Drags in places, but otherwise compelling.

Nov 02, 2016

Let me first say that you don't need an inkling of interest in or knowledge of surfing to love this book. Bill Finnegan covers the basics for all the novices out there. For example, there's a terrific little aside early on where he explains the physics of how waves are created. It's short and sweet and then it's back to the story. Anything more advanced, such as the various techniques used and what they're called, is filtered through the context of the author's life and is easily relatable. The language of growing up is a commonality we all share.

I wonder at what point in his storied, seize-the-day life Bill Finnegan realized that surfing would always be a part of it. We all have interests that come and go, but for him it's clearly more than a hobby. Though to call it an obsession wouldn't be quite accurate either. It's more like surfing is his extended family of one—a love he will care for until he can no longer do so.

Things noticeably slow down in the middle chapters, probably because he's somewhat settled and is no longer globe-trotting, but I still recommend hanging in there through to the end. Seeing the author reflect back on a life well lived while guided by the wisdom of his twilight years makes the whole effort worth it.

Aug 31, 2016

Long but well-written, informative, autobiographical story of global adventure travel and a detailed investigation into the obsessive fascination of surfing. Replete with the ring of truth.

Aug 12, 2016

Obama's reading list

View All Comments


Add a Summary

Mar 29, 2017

This is a memoir of Finnegan's middle school years through his middle age years. He describes the intricacies of surfing, reading the waves -- their shapes, colors, movements, textures, sounds, starting and ending points, etc. -- and responding to them. He describes his responses in terms of his body's, his mind's, his heart's, his soul's reactions and adjustments. He spent several years traveling the world looking for excellent waves, all the while learning and respecting the local personalities and cultures. Surfing was everything. His attention to the smallest detail conveys how important those details were, and makes for fascinating reading. I was reminded of The Boys in the Boat and, to a lesser extent of H is for Hawk, both of which I liked very much.

After his round the world surfing stopped, the book dragged a bit -- most of life is not as interesting and surfing (because it's not? or because we don't focus on the details?). But it won me over again when he reconciled his new "old guy" approach to surfing with his regular life.

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at WPL

To Top