When someone asks me what I do for a living, it is very rare that I say, “I am a surf writer.” I would never ever say, “I am a surf journalist”, because I am not. There aren’t many of those, and for the most part, anyone that says they are one is probably not. I don’t say I’m a surf writer because there isn’t such a thing–or at least there shouldn’t be. Instead, there should be writers who surf and like to write about surfing, among many other things. William Finnegan is one of those writers. And he just won a Pulitzer for Barbarian Days, which is a book about surfing. Yes, a book about surfing has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the most distinguished award a writer can receive. It is a beautiful book. One of the most beautiful books, full of sadness and adventure and joy and excitement.
A few months ago, I picked up Barbarian Days thinking I’d have a good book to pick through for the next week or so. Books about surfing don’t generally interest me that much, but I loved Playing Doc’s Games and I love Finnegan’s writing in general, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Two days later, bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, I emerged from one of the most fantastically written books I’ve ever read. While it is about surfing, Barbarian Days is a more a story about living, and surfing just so happened to be what that life hinged on. Finnegan has written, without a doubt, the best book about living and surfing ever written.
Writing about surfing is a hard thing to do. Most writers, myself included, struggle with it–writing about everything that surrounds the actual act of surfing is much better and much easier; the best surfing stories are just stories about traveling, with some surfing in between. Too often a writer will come off as self-indulgent and overly descriptive in the effort to describe what he’s feeling, because it is an intensely personal thing. In Barbarian Days, Finnegan both tells an amazing story of discovery and renders an almost perfect portrait of how surfing feels.
Of course, Finnegan isn’t a surf writer. He’s a writer. He’s been with The New Yorker for years, and has covered topics ranging from apartheid to immigration–things far more important than surfing. But he is a surfer who is a writer. In writing Barbarian Days, Finnegan wrote an autobiography of an extraordinary life, and because he is a surfer, that autobiography focused heavily on surfing. Underneath it all, though, I think surfing was merely a vessel for Finnegan to search for much more than waves–he was searching for himself. A book about simply surfing would never win a Pulitzer. A book about living an extraordinary life would… and it did.