This is about a review by Alice Gregory, in the New York Review of Books of 13 August, of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan.
It’s probably a bit toshy to comment on a book review, and to say things about the book based only on a review. Also, someone who knew what they were doing at this internet business would supply readers, at this point, with a link to the review in question, which – having read it in the gloriously shiny pages of the magazine itself – I am not going to do.
The review is a prime example of why I am glad to have discovered the NYRB and abandoned my father’s paper, the TLS. It starts out with a passage from Middlemarch about place. It goes on, This capacity for geographical familiarity – knowing exactly where the neighbour’s fence warps slightly – is a visceral kind of knowledge, gained organically, and it atrophies as we age. Learning a place by heart is a luxury rarely afforded to adults, and unless absolutely forced to, one seldom even notices that the ability has been lost.
Is that true? I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I am thinking about it.
Then we come to Finnegan, who says, Alice Gregory says, that this is how surfers have to learn the places where they surf. (The only book on the topic that I have read, Tim Winton’s Breathe, suggests that this is so.)
Lots of good writing by him and her.
Finnegan’s book is a study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing.
[Finnegan swims among fish that he finds] “so pointlessly gorgeous I found myself groaning in my snorkel”.
How a person spends his free time – what he chooses to do when he can do anything at all – is one of the most important things about him. But Barbarian Days is less an ode to independence than a celebration of deliberate constriction, of making choices that determine what you think about and who you know.
And the piece circles back to the start: As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing.
I like the formedness of the review. And I like the fact it is about an unserious thing.
It’s five years now that I’ve lived where I live. Here’s the garden. The white part of the wall was wobbly when we moved in and eventually fell down, we had to get it rebuilt. I think I would get to know this garden by heart if I live here long enough.