Ultimate books to read at the beach
There’s something about surfing and the lonely pursuit of the perfect wave that lends itself nicely to the reflection of the writer and the written word. You paddle out toward the far horizon by yourself, after all. And, Lord knows, the writer looks inward to find the words and images and stories that he or she spills across the page.
So in honor of the most literal definition of beach reads, we offer these must-reads about surfing or the world in which it takes place.
“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” by William Finnegan, 2015: A writer for The New Yorker, Finnegan earned glowing reviews for his book and in April won the Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. “Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read,” the New York Times Magazine review declared. “Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, ‘Barbarian Days’ offers a clear-eyed vision of American boyhood.”
“In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road,” by Allan Weisbecker, 2001: This page-turner of a memoir tells the story of Weisbecker’s mid-life decision to sell his Long Island home and drive south through Mexico and Central America in search of a buddy who’d more or less disappeared five years earlier with nothing but a mysterious postcard as a clue. It’s a vivid, adventurous tale and much loved by other surfers.
“Breath,” by Tim Winton, 2008: The Australian novelist Winton is a literary star at home and twice short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in Great Britain. In this novel he spins a tale of two young friends who learn to surf as teens in the ’70s and how that helps them make their way to adulthood and a deeper understanding of life.
“The History of Surfing,” by Matt Warshaw, 2010: Take it from the guys at Surfer Magazine, who should know, right? “If you were to buy only one book about surfing, this would be it. Exhaustively researched and written with Warshaw’s sure-handed confidence, it’s our history told by one of the sport’s most respected intellects. It’s also full of some of the best surf photos ever taken, all put together in a gorgeous 500-page hardcover.”
“Tapping the Source,” by Kem Nunn, 1984: This novel set in Huntington Beach isn’t just one of the great literary fictions ever written about surfing, it’s one of the great Orange County books as well. The first in a series of novels dubbed “surf noir,” this one gets the nod over Nunn’s “The Dogs of Winter” and “Tijuana Straits” because it came first and caught the edge that led to those later works.
“Surfing Guide to Southern California,” by David Stern and Bill Cleary, 1963: What, you ask, is a guidebook published more than 50 years ago, doing on this list? Well, it’s a classic, that’s what. Widely recognized as the first surfing guide, the original and reprints over the years capture a vintage ’60s vibe at the same time as describing surf spots that haven’t changed a bit, or in some cases are forever transformed. A cool snapshot into the scene that was and will be.
“Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell: A True Story of Violence, Corruption, and the Soul of Surfing,” by Chas Smith, 2013: Written with gonzo attitude and a cocksure style, Smith’s book set on the North Shore of Oahu made a big impression on one of the other authors on our list. Wrote Daniel Duane in his review: “Chas Smith is a stone-cold original – a globe-trotting, war-reporting, motorcycle-driving, cigarette-smoking, tube-riding, fashion-obsessed international dandy with a penchant for dangerous people, places, and, most of all, prose. Absolutely the most entertaining surf book in years, a breathless adrenalized romp.”
“Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast,” by Daniel Duane, 1996: Bored in his job, Duane quit and moved to Santa Cruz to surf for a year, a period in which the oceans and the waves opened his imagination to all manner of introspective musings on life, nature and the pursuit of happiness, prompting reviewers to call this book the surf equivalent of Thoreau’s “Walden.” Wrote Will Blythe in Esquire: “Wonderful ... (Duane is) an ontologist of dudedom, Henry David Thoreau doing aerials on a fiberglass board.”
“All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora,” by David Rensin, 2008: Miki “Da Cat” Dora was one of the first superstar surfers, a legend the girls wanted to be with and the guys wanted to be like. He called himself the King of Malibu. Others compared him to Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan or Pablo Picasso for his iconic place as an artist on the waves. When the ’60s surf boom flooded Malibu and other California beaches with wanna-be crowds, he fled to quieter shores, eventually running into trouble and serving jail time before his death of cancer a decade ago.
“The Dawn Patrol,” by Don Winslow, 2008: The last novel on our list, this dark comic thriller by former Orange County resident Don Winslow tells the story of private eye Boone Daniels, who surfs every morning with his pals in a group whose name is used for the title of the book, investigating crimes by night.