Barbarian Days is an actual surfin’ safari


For a sport so culturally linked to stoners and burnouts, surfing requires a surprising amount of energy. Physical, to be sureβ€”all that paddling and balancing and trying not to drownβ€”but also intellectual, and perhaps emotional too. There are seemingly infinite permutations of reefs, winds, cloud-covers and currents to assess, and a truly passionate surfer’s life is inextricably linked to these permutations, to whether their combination on any given day means everything must be dropped, every obligation sidelined, in the interest of catching a few good waves.

For reasons that have to do mostly with my own lack of prowess at anything requiring corporeal exertion, sporting memoirs aren’t usually my jam. The intricacies of a physical activity (save, I guess, one) feel duly rendered to me as text, even though I know there are hundreds of books that arguably disprove this opinion. But as athletic-endeavor memoirs go, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days made a pretty strong case for itselfβ€”it was on a bunch of “Best of 2015” lists last year, aaaannnd it won a Pulitzer. 

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Not on my bucket list

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to explain the effect this week’s book had on me, and I think it’s this: Over the weekend, I came very close to watching Blue Crush 2.

In the end I didn’t (True Blood prevailed) but the point is the thought was there. And ultimately, isn’t the biggest testament to a nonfiction book whether or not, in the end, it leaves you wanting to know more?

Actually, in the days after I finished Susan Casey’s The Wave, I found myself doing all sorts of additional research: looking up YouTube videos of surfer Laird Hamiltonβ€”who Casey interviews at length throughout the bookβ€”reading articles on wave research, and ironically, preparing my apartment for an imminent hurricane. It seems once I started learning about the world of extreme weather, the topic became all but unavoidable.

I guess I should give you a little context. The Wave is a nonfiction book, true, but it’s the kind of nonfiction book that immersed its author; for every interview with a world-renowned scientist, there’s a long afternoon spent a mile offshore, watching tow surfers take on 40-foot waves from the back of a lurching fishing boat. Susan Casey even moved to Hawaii for the duration of her research, and the book includes a photo of her gamely hanging on to a Jet Ski just a few minutes before Hamilton took her down the face of Jaws, one of the most impressive (and terrifying) waves in the world. It’s this immersion, in addition to Casey’s impressive research, that makes The Wave not only accessible, but riveting. In the vein of Mary Roach (my aforementioned favorite nonfiction author), Casey finds a way to bestow upon her readers the enthusiasm she seems to share with the subjects (scientists, surfers, etc.) of her story.

The Wave covers a broad spectrum (wave pun!) of oceanography, focusing primarily on the surfers who pursue the world’s most dangerous waves, and the scientists studying them (the waves, not the surfers). Threaded throughout the book are both camps’ understanding of rogue, or freak waves, the kind that level towns, destroy ocean liners and exist despite the fact that they’re mathematically inexplicable. Casey’s transitions from the adventures of the world’s greatest surfers to the findings of the world’s greatest oceanographers are never confusing; rather, it seems to take both perspectives to impart upon readers the enormity of the subject. A surfer who’s had a near-death experience with a fifty-footer and a scientist who’s seen the hull of a boat ripped clean off by one have different outlooks on the ocean, save one unifying reaction: deep  respect.

Continue reading “Not on my bucket list”