The Art of Surfing in ‘Barbarian Days’

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: William Finnegan, Jonathan Evison, and Michael Szalay.

william finnegan
William Finnegan

Surfing, like most sports, primarily consists of performing the same actions over and over again. A surfer embarks toward a wave, paddling against a current, under the heat of a blazing sun; manages to ride the wave; takes a brief break; then undertakes this challenge once more. However, to a diligent eye or to a person who surfs fervently, as William Finnegan shows us in his extraordinary memoir, Barbarian Dayswhich Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m.)—surfing has plenty of narrative potential.

Indeed, this fact actually makes surfing (and anyone who writes about it) quite accessible, and Barbarian Days is a wonderful case in point: it takes us out narratively to a wave itself and asks us to consider, just for a moment, its grandeur, charm, and seduction. “My utter absorption in surfing had no rational content,” Finnegan says. “It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it.” Even as Finnegan grows older and becomes more knowledgeable, and is thus able to explain the scientific origins of waves and the mechanics of surfing, its allure remains a mystery, one to be appreciated—a kind of art, if you will.

And because surfing has become an art for Finnegan, it is something he practically dedicates his entire life to. As we learn, he drops out of college to pursue an adventure of a lifetime. He becomes itinerant—living in tents, cars, cheap motels. He takes on odd jobs. He travels to Fiji, Australia, Madeira, San Francisco, Los Angeles—all in pursuit of a perfect wave, the one that will transform his life and perhaps offer him spiritual transcendence. But as with all art, there are challenges to encounter, sacrifices to be made. And Finnegan is not spared these. In this way, Barbarian Days is incisively candid about what it means to follow a passion, despite other, seemingly more pressing priorities.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Finnegan on July 15 click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Barbarian Days:


barbarian days, william finnegan
Penguin Books


Alta Journal’s books editor, David L. Ulin, explains what makes Barbarian Days an extraordinary piece of writing and why you should read it. Alta

william finnegan, barbarian days


“I was trying to nail the specific duality of being in the ocean as a kid—the comfort, the fear,” Finnegan says of writing Barbarian Days during an interview with Ulin. Alta

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Algonquin Books


In a review, Diana Wagman considers how Jonathan Evison’s Legends of the North Cascadesreads like a thriller and a twisted parenting guide as well as a commentary on the disappointments and perils and infrequent joys of modern life.” Alta

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atlas obscura


Jack Tamisiea outlines how scientists figured out what had been adversely affecting California’s once-thriving and delicate marine environment. The culprit? Cows. Atlas Obscura

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Nina Subin


“This is the way most people are in her stories. They look ordinary—but beneath the surface they are inchoate bundles of barely examined intuitions and wild certainties,” Laura Marsh says about Janet Malcolm’s perspective on American people. New Republic

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Los Angeles Review of Books


Michael Szalay describes how contemporary family dramas reflect the way streaming platforms have transformed the film industry and revolutionized the way we consume media. Los Angeles Review of Books

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Forrest Gander


“Nietzsche described himself as a teacher of slow reading. I think that’s the fear some people have about poetry, is that it takes a slow reading,” says Forrest Gander, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. Otherppl with Brad Listi

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Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times


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Jose Carlos Fajardo


Noel Obiora, author of A Past That Breathes, discusses his journey from senior legal counsel to novelist. Orange County Register

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Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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