The title of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is largely inspired by a phrase that appears in Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk and is featured in the memoir’s epigraph: “He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.”
Barbarian Days—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m.)—charts Finnegan’s enduring passion for surfing, from his childhood in California and Hawaii to his adult years, as he sought out the perfect wave across the world. Finnegan’s autobiography is replete with delightful and enchanting details of the most formative waves he’s encountered and the nitty-gritty mechanics of riding them.
Barbarian Days attempts to capture the raw feeling of those “barbaric days”—the electric euphoria and luminous difficulty of surfing—while also being wary of its ability to do so. The project is a remarkable threefold acknowledgment that some experiences cannot be reduced to words, that experience alone is enough (i.e., there is no need for grand or mawkish flourishes), and that it is still noble to try to trace the shape of near-ineffable periods of our lives. “I watched the tattered pages float away in a glassy lagoon. I closed my eyes,” Finnegan writes. “I felt the weight of unmapped worlds, unborn language. This was what I was chasing: not the exotic, but a broad-beamed understanding of what is what.”
Even as Finnegan braids together his experience of surfing to arrive at complicated topics of memory and what it means to be in the world, he reminds us that surfing is not merely a metaphor or lens but that very thing—a practice that allows for a kind of enlightenment and one that, in many ways, brought Finnegan to writing.
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:
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