56 pages 1 hour read

William Finnegan

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is a 2015 memoir by William Finnegan, a writer for The New Yorker and the author of several social journalism books such as A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique and Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters. In Barbarian Days, Finnegan reflects on his upbringing in California and Hawaii, as well as his coming of age in the late 1960s. He relays his experience of the surfing counterculture and reflects on his adventurous and nomadic youth, which laid the foundation for his life as a writer and avid amateur surfer. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best autobiography and was named the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

This guide refers to the Kindle edition of the book.


In Chapter 1, the author explains that when he was 13, his father’s work in the film industry prompted the family to move from California to Hawaii. Initially, Finnegan was bewildered by the complex and diverse social scene in his new working-class neighborhood of Kaimuki and sought refuge from bullies by befriending a clique known as the “In Crowd.” Often feeling alienated from his family and desperate to escape babysitting duties, Finnegan spent as much time as he could surfing at the local beaches, where he befriended other surfers and developed his skills. In Chapter 2, Finnegan looks back on his early childhood in California, describing his inland neighborhood as suburban, insular, and racially homogenous because of segregation. While he enjoyed skateboarding and exploring the hills behind his neighborhood, Finnegan much preferred going to Newport Beach to visit friends and surf. When his family bought property in Ventura, California, Finnegan took the opportunity to surf more often and shared this pastime with his close friend Domenic. Chapter 3 recalls the “Shortboard Revolution” of the 1960s, when shortboards, which were faster and easier to turn, began to replace longboards as the most popular surfboard. The author recalls how surfing soon became integrated into the broader counterculture movement of the 1960s and as such was associated with the antiwar movement, hippie culture, and drug use.

In Chapter 4, the author recalls his youthful adventures while driving across the US with Domenic and traveling to Europe with his girlfriend Caryn. He later dropped out of university and moved to Lahaina with Caryn, working at a bookstore to support himself while obsessively surfing at Honolua Bay. The couple later broke up, which was emotionally devastating for Finnegan, and he eventually returned to California to complete his studies.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Finnegan describes how his urge to explore led him to quit his job as a railroad brakeman and leave his girlfriend at the time, Sharon, to travel the remote islands of the South Pacific with his friend Bryan. The two friends sought out surf spots in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa before journeying on to Australia where they lived in the surf town Kirra before taking a road trip across the country. Despite ups and downs in their friendship, Bryan and Finnegan began cowriting articles for the Australian surf magazine Tracks, which was a popular youth magazine at the time.

Chapter 7 recounts how Finnegan then traveled to Bali, Indonesia, with Bryan. There, the author surfed and worked on a novel. After recovering from a painful bout of paratyphoid, Finnegan traveled to remote Grajagan to camp and surf and then moved on to Sumatra. Reuniting with his girlfriend Sharon in Singapore, the two went to Thailand, where Finnegan was hospitalized with malaria. After recovering, he went to Sri Lanka and eventually to South Africa, where he soon found work as a teacher in a township school. Here he learned more about the oppressive apartheid regime and the challenges his Black students faced, and he altered the curriculum to avoid teaching apartheid government propaganda.

In Chapter 8, the author relays how he came to return to the US, giving up his nomadic ways to move to San Francisco with his new girlfriend, Caroline. While San Francisco didn’t have as robust a surf culture as other California coast cities, Finnegan nonetheless embraced the new surfing opportunities, often surfing with friend Mark Renneker, a big-wave enthusiast.

Chapter 9 describes how Finnegan and Caroline, now married, came to settle in New York, where Finnegan wrote for The New Yorker and continued to author books. Through his work, he befriended an illustrator named Peter; the two traveled to Madeira and fell in love with the island and its surfing opportunities. They returned to the island repeatedly, sometimes enjoying great surfing and other times enduring harrowing near-death experiences.

In the final chapter, Finnegan relays how he grew to embrace surfing small waves in New York City and Long Island. He discusses how the popularity of surfing has grown exponentially and how corporations have glamorized the sport and used its imagery to sell products. Finnegan shares his disappointment over how companies seem desperate to grow the sport for the sake of selling products and, like all surfers, worries about waves becoming too crowded, privatized, or otherwise commercialized. He hopes to continue surfing for as long as he can.

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