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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

Penguin Press, 464 pages, $27.95

Was it really Frank Zappa who first uttered, “So many books, so little time”? In the vast space of the Internet, I cannot find a decent attribution. But my deep down belief is that this thought has been around ever since the invention of papyrus scrolls and rice paper.

Sorry. I’ve strayed off the mystery path once again, because there are so many good books that have recently popped to the surface. In an era when the publishing industry has to reinvent itself and authors have to reinvent writing and the public has to reinvent how it reads, there is still such excellence out there that I will never be able to read everything I want to read, even if I were to live to 130.

I’m returning to the world of mystery after this, but what an excellent way to leave the non-mystery world than with this memoir by New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan. What first drew me to this book is that I grew up in Hawaii and surfing was everywhere. Surfing talk, surfing clothes, surfing hair, surfing movies, and, oh yes, even the actual wave surfing on the magnetic beaches of Hawaii. It didn’t matter that my swimming style was only a little better than dog paddling. It didn’t matter that I did not surf. Like my friends, I wore reverse aloha print clothing, listened to The Beach Boys, watched the Makaha surfing championships on television, and knew the names of the best island surfers. Some of my classmates surfed. They surfed the uneven, far-off, shark-infested break off my island that ended in coral and riptides. My way was by far the safer surf obsession. But as I know, especially after reading William Finnegan’s book, it was not the more interesting.

Finnegan was blessed to have grown up in Southern California and Hawaii. (His Hawaii stories are sad — he was a haole, after all — and funny and touching.) He learned his craft early and had enough talent to surf some of the best waves in CA and HI, before taking off to surf the world.

Even those of you for whom the thought of surfing curls your lip and beetles your brow might enjoy Finnegan’s engaging writing and storytelling. It is a special writer who can be self-deprecating about his own triumphs, yet give us a sense of how nature goes where it wants and surfers are, truly, just along for the ride.

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