To discover a passion, to cultivate and nurse it, to pursue it to your very limits—perhaps that is the meaning of a life well lived. This is certainly an ethos that washes over readers in William Finnegan’s extraordinary 2015 memoir, Barbarian Days—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m.)—though, of course, it is not without some challenge, anxiety, or danger.
Barbarian Days—which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Biography—charts Finnegan’s acute fascination with surfing, which dates to his early adolescence in California and, later, Hawaii, where his father worked as a producer for television. From his formative years of learning the social and physical contracts of life in the water, beating against and riding along tides, currents, and waves, we follow Finnegan into his adult years, as he continues to surf in San Francisco, Fiji, Australia, and even New York.
Surfing, for Finnegan, is not simply a hobby; indeed, it feels akin to a spiritual vocation, one that elevates, intersects, and amplifies all other parts of his life. Barbarian Days, then, is more than a devoted surfer’s memoir: it is a coming-of-age narrative; it is a piece of travel writing; it is at times quite (and rightfully) ethnographic, covering the political, social, and cultural contours of a place. More important, though, Finnegan is deeply concerned with unraveling what it means to be a person in the world and how surfing became a point of entry for self-discovery, self-fashioning, and community-building.
Finnegan presents a luminous account of surfing in all its textures and aspects: there is a brute physicality to the sport that is never obscured or elided—we witness the bruises, the scrapes, the burns, the unfortunately grave injuries. But there is still great beauty that anyone can access, whether they’re an avid surfer, a curious spectator, or an inquisitive newcomer. Barbarian Days might even inspire you to check out some surfboards just in time for California’s fall-season waves.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Finnegan on July 15 (at 5:30 p.m.), click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Barbarian Days:
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