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Best Surf Books of All Time

If you want to read books about surfing, start here. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

Surf books are an essential ingredient in every surfer’s life. After all, it’s not head-high and glassy every day. In fact, that’s rarely the case. While “best of” reading lists are a pretty subjective thing, and I’m no Oprah Winfrey, I do know a thing or two about stories that capture the greatest parts of being a surfer. We spend so much time daydreaming about our favorite hobby/ritual/practice that it only makes sense to dive into a thoughtful piece of writing that leaves you with an even greater appreciation for surfing. These fifteen books (plus two) all paint a vivid, sometimes complex illustration of how and why we start and end every day thinking that our next great wave is ahead of us. Think we missed an essential surf book? Feel free to make additions or suggestions in the comments. Happy reading.

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1. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

If you’re a surfer and you appreciate strong writing, this book is well worth your time. I put this one off. Big time. Finnegan’s intimate descriptions of getting acquainted with waves, the cultures around them, and the relationships that drove his life forward are riveting. The New Yorker columnist drops no shortage of ten-dollar words, which can be obnoxious at times (we get it, you’re smart!), but getting better acquainted with the English language is a good thing. Finnegan writes about how the obsession to chase surf waxes and wanes through a lifetime, and I could very much relate. I longed for a moment where I am once again totally consumed by a wave. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that luxury since childhood. Beyond reawakening in me a committed surf lust, I thoroughly enjoyed his writing. The book is ambitious. Finnegan ties in sociopolitical stirrings, personal triumphs and failures, and their relationship to the lingering guilt of the surfer: our uselessness when compared with a life much larger than the ocean. It’s an enriching page turner. I’m glad he wrote it. And I’m glad I read it.


2. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

It’s not every day that a surfer/climber builds one of the most widely respected and socially responsible businesses on earth. If you haven’t listened to his How I Built This Podcast, you should. More grains of knowledge sing proudly in these pages, and you’d do worse than spending a day by the beach absorbing it.


3. Surf Is Where You Find It by Gerry Lopez

The same way that Yvon Chouinard’s words bear significance, so too do Gerry Lopez’s. Which is why it’s no surprise that Lopez, Mr. Pipeline, has helped spearhead Patagonia’s surf-related initiatives. In Surf Is Where You Find It, Lopez waxes poetic in 38 stories about the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime in the ocean. Lopez has long carried with him zen-like wisdom when he speaks, and the same is equally true with how he writes. He manages to extract relevant life lessons from barrel-riding to the feeling of scoring epic surf, and at a base level, it feels true. Not in a cheesy way. In a way that only one of the most respected men in surfing could accomplish.


4. West of Jesus  by Steven Kotler
Contrary to the title, West of Jesus isn’t about Jesus. And it’s not all about surfing. It’s not really about spirituality or religion either, but it really is at the same time. Steven Kotler covers all the bases of belief as it relates to our connection with the ocean. All over the globe and throughout every step of recorded history, man has woven his foundation of survival as well as spirituality with the sea. In some cases, science has answers to how and why we leave the water feeling better than when we entered. But sometimes the only thing that can explain our attachment to a silly (or not so silly) ritual of riding walls of energy that have traveled thousands of miles only to be met by mere mortals is faith. 

If you’re one of those people that constantly thinks about how much you love surfing and even ask yourself why from time to time, West of Jesus isn’t going to give you the answers. Yes, you’ll close the book with a deeper understanding of it all, but you’re going to walk away with a little bit of mind blown-itus and a lot more curiosity.


5. For the Love by Kelly Slater

Yeah, the GOAT makes the list. Obviously. This book came out in 2008, when Kelly Slater was a mere 9-time world champion. A few years prior, with the help of writer Phil Jarrat, he published Pipe Dreams (as a pesky six-time world champion). It’s amazing to see how much and little changes both circumstantially and within the mind of the greatest competitive surfer to ever live in the span of a few years. From heartache to fame to life philosophy, Slater wears his heart on his sleeve, and you can bet we’re excited for his post-career read. We know it’s coming at some point.


6. California Surfing and Climbing in the Fifties by Yvon Chouinard and Steve Pezman

So this book has become a rarity. It’s hard to get your hands on. But once you do, you’re lucky enough to transport to an extremely special time in California surf culture. A few turns of the page, and you’re knee deep in the Golden Era. You’ll see images of Marilyn Monroe at beach parties in Malibu. Yvon Chouinard with a jarringly chiseled physique relaxing with friends post-climb. It’s an all-access pass to a moment in time that created surf (and climbing) culture and the nostalgia that follows it to this day. This book captures that spirit more effectively than maybe any other we’ve seen. Surfing and climbing in California in the fifties was special. This book does right by it.


7. The Code by Shaun Tomson

I loved Shaun Tomson long before he wrote this book. But I love him even more since reading Surfer’s Code. As a group, we’re not the best at candidly sharing our life stories and lessons with each other. In fact, it kind of makes the whole pursuit feel that much more selfish knowing there’s no expectation to take this awesome experience and somehow pay it forward. Sure, plenty of people do that. But not many do it as well as Tomson.

The outline is pretty simple. Tomson lays out a direct lesson or rule analogous to surfing, then he dives into the personal story that led him to that lesson, sometimes coming from the vivid memory of a wave, a surf trip, a contest or a wipe out. Here’s a man who followed his dreams around the entire globe. And the things he learned in the water transcended riding waves, opening his heart to new dreams and bringing him to new places. He’s lived through tragedy most wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies and come out of it all with an even stronger urge to give back to the same community that fueled those early dreams: surfers.


8. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey

If you’re nerds like us, when a talented writer like Susan Casey (formerly the editor of O, The Oprah Magazine) combines science, rogue waves, and Laird Hamilton into a cohesive, educational tale, you’re jazzed. Casey grants the reader a seat on Laird’s jetski and a window into the brains of the world’s leading scientists to learn more about the ocean and its powerful feats. It’s a good ride.


9. In Search of Captain Zero by Alan Weisbecker

Weisbecker’s memoir-ish account of packing up his belongings, dog, and ditching America in search of his lost friend south of the border is a sometimes-dark romp that will inspire wanderlust with the best of ’em. There’s danger, guilt, fear, and a hedonistic pull toward a tranquil, surf-based existence. Careful with this one, as you may take a page out of Weisbecker’s book and leave your current life behind.


10. Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

This is the book that inspired Point Break. The original one. It was also a National Book Award Finalist. It takes you to a seedy, surf-ratty time in Huntington Beach that is still barely alive in the neck tattooed bars on Main Street by the HB Pier. ‘Nuff said, right?


11. Saltwater Buddha by Jamail Yogis

Yogis is a Columbia journalism school grad, who has managed to weave together some of the most meditative and transcendent words we’ve encountered related to surfing. The coming of age tale he spins in Saltwater Buddha takes the reader around the country and on a spiritual journey that’s equal parts saltwater and self-discovery.


11. Sebi the Surfin’ Spoon: Sebi Goes Surfing by Jesse and Whitney Hines

Readers come in all ages, no? If you’ve created and/or are raising a child, this book illustrated by Ben Weiland and written by North Carolina pro surfer Jesse Hines and his wife, Whitney, is a must-own. It teaches valuable lessons, features fun art, and might be the kindling needed to light your grom’s fire to get barreled. And did we mention Jesse and Whitney own an ice cream shop called Surfin’ Spoon in the Outer Banks? Because they do, and they, their ice cream shop, and their book are all adorable and awesome. For more, check out our guide to the Best Surf Books for Kids.


13. Surf Shacks by Indoek

This one is kind of cheating, because you shouldn’t bring it to the beach. It’s a coffee table book. And it’ll make your coffee table look better. It also might give you some interior design inspiration as it takes you inside the homes of many of the world’s most iconic and stylish surfers. That’s all. Just portraits of surfers in their homes. But that’s plenty.


14. The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw

While we’re cheating with coffee table books, we’d be remiss not to include the mac-daddy of surf history’s reference book, The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw. Warshaw, the author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, has chronicled the sport exhaustively, and this book is no different. Bear in mind, you have to really care about surf history to enjoy this book. It’s not fictional tales with pleasurable plotlines. It’s selective passages of relatively important moments in the history of surf with intelligent color commentary.


15. Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening by Liz Clark

If you’re searching for a real-life story of a strong woman seizing life by the balls to make her dreams come true by setting sail to learn invaluable life lessons, look no further. The good stuff is in here.


16. All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora  by David Rensin

The first time I ever saw a Dos XX commercial with the most interesting man in the world, I immediately thought of Miki Dora. To this day I still can’t watch one of those spots without thinking of surfing’s original asshole, renegade, international man of mystery, con man and all around cool guy. This biography doesn’t always paint the most affectionate picture of Dora, while also making it clear that just as many people really loved the guy. He was so polarizing because he explored every corner of what the surfing lifestyle had to offer. His rise to surfing superstardom paralleled the climb in popularity of surfing in the United States, so this book is as much a history lesson as it is a biography.


17. Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast by Daniel Duane

Do you love Barbarian Days by William Finnegan? Can you not stop comparing every surf session to a session Bill describes in the book? You’ll love Caught Inside. Set in Santa Cruz over the course of a year, Daniel Duane surfs with local legends, explores (and surfs) the surrounding coastline, talks about waves in a unique way that I’ve never seen before, or since, and gets caught inside a few times.



18. The Alchemist 

Not a surf story. Not even a little bit. At least it wasn’t intended to be a book about/for surfing, so about the only relation it has to anything surf was that its author is Brazilian. But if you’re like me you have a long lists of interests in life that take place out of the ocean. Meanwhile, the fact that you just love surfing so damn much inevitably brings those other interests and passions back into comparisons with surfing anyway. So let the parallel digging begin: A shepherd has a series of recurring dreams that convince him to leave his herd in search of a treasure. The further he travels the more he learns he’s really just chasing his own personal destiny.

Now why in the world would a surfer care about this? Let’s see, how many of us jump on freeways, boats, and airplanes every day with the hope that leaving home will reward us with the best waves we’ve ever seen?  Do you ever feel like the quality of the wave waiting at the end of your journey is directly related to how far you have to travel? Trust me, there are a lot of parallels here that will have you feeling warm and fuzzy about your appreciation for getting barreled.


19. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Also not a surf story. But it might as well be. And Kerouac is Kerouac. This is the slice of Americana that inspires a reader to pick up and make meaning of adventures. Just substitute an ocean and you’re good.

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