Author: William Finnegan
Barbarian Days is, much as the subtitle suggests, a surfing memoir. For William Finnegan, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, catching waves has been a lifelong obsession that has taken him all over the world. It's a book that inspires envy for me, the envy of those who have lived more adventurous lives than I have. But at the same time, it reminds me of how lucky I have been for the stability I have enjoyed in exchange.
My wife, who had already read the book, asked if I was feeling inspired to surf. In truth, few sports scare me more. Combine an irrational fear of heights with an entirely healthy fear of the ocean and the idea of throwing myself at the mercy of the latter while perched several feet in the air upon a thin piece of plastic is the food of nightmares. However, I do envy Finnegan for finding a hobby early in life that travels well and having sufficient fearlessness at the right age to pursue such travels. There was a time in life when I could have chosen such a path - for me, it would have been scuba rather than surfing - and for numerous reasons both sensible and gratifying, I am glad I didn't. But I still occasionally dream wistfully of life choices not taken and that's a big one.
I don't understand most of Finnegan's surfspeak but the poetic language he employs to describe the pleasures of the wave is highly seductive anyway. Much of the joy of the book, though, is in his descriptions of exotic locations and his colorful surf buddies. Finnegan presents himself as the straight-man sidekick for each of his companions. While that might be an accurate reflection of his relationships, it would be interesting to know what all of them think of him. There's no questioning his devotion as he writes of surfing off Long Island during an ice storm, the sort of weather that would find me huddled under a warm blanket at home.
One of the most important questions I consider when evaluating a sports book is whether or not my sports-ambivalent wife would enjoy it. The fact that she'd already read it and recommended it is highly significant. The Pulitzer Prize Finnegan won for the book is also a strong point in its favor.