In the end, the decision was unanimous. This is an achievement in itself, particularly for a book that covered surfing. The subject matter was something that the judging panel openly admitted caused a select few to pause and consider whether surfing is a sport. Thankfully, common sense prevailed.
In a particularly strong shortlist, where six different sports were covered over the seven books (only football featured twice), Barbarian Days benefitted, somewhat ironically, from its lack of sporting action – something Finnegan himself touches upon in the book.
A full 20 years in the making, the book follows Finnegan’s (a staff writer at the New Yorker) own memories, as he delves deep into surfing culture across the globe. This, however, is not a story about riding big waves. Barbarian Days is a step into the surf community, the shared bonds they have and the borderline addiction that exists among those immersed in this world.
Having already won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the story covers the 50 years of the author’s life spent devoted to the sport. Beginning with how he learnt to surf as a child in California, and subsequently following the author’s travels across the world in search of the most challenging breaks and swells.
There are surfing specifics – the elation of taking on notorious waves or the fear that grips during dangerous moments – that are described beautifully, but there is also plenty for surfing novices to enjoy. Essentially a coming-of-age story, Finnegan’s book covers politics, travel and environmental issues, opening his world out to a wider audience. Although he started surfing on the west coast of the United States and Hawaii, Barbarian Days takes readers to South Africa, Europe and Asia, as he meets different communities who share the same mindset.
It may sounds obvious, but the book is the most elegantly written of the contenders. It doesn’t carry the weight in research of Oliver Kay’s Forever Young, or Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek by Rick Broadbent (both of which could have been worthy winners), but the personal passion that is conveyed, and the constant battle between the author and the waves he’s infatuated with, are irresistible.
Interestingly, across the shortlist, only Broadbent’s offering focuses on what we might consider a sporting celebrity, with Zátopek amassing an enormous fan base as a result of his political stance as much as ludicrous sporting achievements. The majority of the shortlist centres around complex characters that struggled with with their talent, or never quite made the grade, yet still had stories worth telling.
It’s the mass appeal that has pipped it for Barbarian Days, something that is initially at odds with what one might expect given its subject matter. The book was good enough to catch the eye of President Obama, featuring on his summer reading list this year – perhaps it was the Hawaii connection – but its graceful ability to engage is the crux of its success, whether you’re a surfer or not.
BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE
by William Finnegan