Best Surfing Books
There are many great books written by surf historians, journalists, or legends. But which one of those is a must-read for everyone? Let’s find out together.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," you're saying, "back off and get the hell out of here! As if it's not enough to try learning how to surf and reading blog posts; now you're going to recommend books?"
If only surfing was about just taking a surfboard into the ocean, we might have agreed with you. However, that's not what surfing is all about; that's not even what surfing is mainly about. Call us romantics, but surfing is about a feeling of enchantment when in the face of majestic natural forces. It's a culture where some lean towards spirituality, some towards being in the moment and hedonism; some are even enchanted by the communal aspect of it all.
So, when we're talking about surf books, we're not referring to those that promote shortcuts like Surfing for Dummies: How to Catch Waves in 13 Simple Steps and Impress Your Elementary School Teacher Who's Already Forgotten All About You. Rather, we're referring to those who successfully reflect the surf culture and the surfing lifestyle. That's what makes a great surf book, and that's probably what you want to read when you're on the plane for a nice surf trip.
Now, let's see which surf books we enjoyed the most.
The Ten Best Surf Books by 2022
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (Penguin Books, 2016)
William Finnegan's been writing for The New Yorker for more than three decades now, and he's a journalist with an MFA in Creative Writing. Moreover, Finnegan is well-versed in a number of social and political issues, including racism, immigration, and poverty. Although he was born in New York City, he's lived in many places that can easily be associated with surfing, like Hawaii, Cape Town, and Sri Lanka.
He's never been a professional surfer himself, but based on the places he's been to and his experience, you can guess what an original, comprehensive, and elaborate take he’d have on surfing. Otherwise, it would be impossible for Barbarian Days to be awarded a Pulitzer in 2016, which is like the best recognition a journalist can get.
But what makes it such a good read? Why is it hailed as the greatest surf book ever by so many laypeople and surf journalists alike? It's basically a memoir detailing Finnegan's first introduction to the surf culture, but it doesn't stay there. It delves into the inner dynamics of an obsession, a search after the perfect wave, and it's a quest surfers really cannot escape when they're at the mercy of the ocean.
William Finnegan isn't shy of going all socio-political about anything either. As you can expect from a New Yorker journalist, he throws around fancy words like they're nothing. However, needing a dictionary near you doesn't take away from the joy and excitement of mind-opening, page-turning sequences of the book.
It's simply a must for surfers, no matter their skill level. It's a must for those who want to be surfers, too. Hell, it's even a must for those who are only looking to read a beautifully written and thought-provoking book.
Pipe Dreams (It Books, 2004) and For the Love (Chronicle Books, 2008) by Kelly Slater and Phil Jarratt
You probably know that Kelly Slater is a surfing legend, that he is the GOAT. Still, if you have your suspicions about his relationship with words, you can just head to his interview with Clayton Nienaber, the head coach of OMBE, and see for yourself. He has a knack for explaining even the most complicated aspects of surfing, like the neutral stance, in the best, most concise, and most sensible way possible. When it comes from him, the persuasiveness of surfing arguments understandably multiplies.
When Pipe Dreams was published, he had six world championships. When For the Love came out, that number was nine. Both can take you on a journey through exhilarating surf stories and shed light on many aspects of a surfer's life. Simply put, Pipe Dreams and For the Love have many insights on fame, Baywatch, and philosophy, and both are written very frankly.
However, the reason why we opted to recommend these together is not that they're so similar. In four years and after three more championships, Kelly changed quite a lot. If you're curious about how and why, you can find answers to your questions in the books, but our emphasis here is that even the world's greatest surfer found lots of ways to change in four quite busy years.
All the anecdotes, stories, and insights aside, the idea that even a surfing virtuoso can evolve makes this great duo of surf books worth considering. There's a life lesson even in the way they exist: no matter what you accomplish, you're never a finished article. That's the key to becoming better as a surfer as well as a human being.
Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea by Jaimal Yogis (Wisdom Publications, 2009)
There are two main paths through which a surfer can find themselves in spiritual waters. You don't need to surf big waves to set out on the first one; you can understand it by looking at the ocean from the edge of a cliff or even by watching videos of the ocean on the little screen of your smartphone.
It inspires awe, it enchants you (even though you know that there are no mermaids beneath the surface or sirens calling for you), and it makes you understand how small you are. Luckily, these don't really have an impact on your progress as a surfer.
For surfers, the second path begets the need to understand that there's energy intrinsic to the wave, and you need to tap into it by being in the moment. It requires a strong mental approach, the ability to become one with the universe, and have a zen-like attitude. Once you reach that state, there's no going back either, and that feeling is arguably one of the best aspects of surfing.
Although it's basically an autobiography, Saltwater Buddha reads almost like a fictional surf story in which the protagonist is on a quest after that particular feeling. During his spiritual journey, he discovers how interconnected everything in the universe is and how surfing can lead to a new state of mindfulness.
You might think that the book is full of fancy language and pretentious meditations because Yogis is a Columbia University graduate. Let's accept it—a majority of contemporary New Age stuff written by Americans bears those traits. However, when you read Saltwater Buddha, you'll find that it's quite easy, engaging, and candid, and it's the perfect fit for a soul surfer.
Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn (Scribner, 2012)
The publication of Tapping the Source by Scribner in 2012 is actually a re-release, and the book was originally published in 1984. The date of the first publication is important because it's the book that inspired the most famous film about surfing: Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow).
You might remember Point Break as another one of those pointless action-thriller movies of the 1990s, and you might be right, but believe us when we say that the original material is far superior to the movie. If our words do not convince you, let us inform you that it was a National Book Award Finalist. That surely counts for something.
Tapping the Source is a novel that mainly takes place in Huntington Beach, Southern California. A man comes to town in search of his missing sister, and soon, he finds himself trapped in a sinister plot full of characters that represent the chaotic underbelly of the United States at the time. Think Vietnam veterans suffering from various after-effects of the war, including PTSD, dangerous drug dealers, mysterious women that promise seduction (ominous, at best), and crazy (some might even say sadistic) surfers.
Of course, such depiction of surfers isn't ideal, especially for us. We like to think that we're chill, soulful people, and most of the time, we are. At least, we're not as sadistic as the ones in the novel. However, it's still a well-written, thrilling ride with its fair share of puzzling and riveting passages.
Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women's Surfing by Andrea Gabbard (Adventura Books, 2000)
Shame on us, really, but it's the truth: women's surfing has almost always been undermined. When we think of the surfing greats, the first names that come to our minds are those of male surfers. When we imagine the ideal surfer, it's this well-built and fairly hot guy who occasionally tidies his wet hair and winks at random women on the beach.
You can blame it on pop culture, mainstream patriarchy, or our obnoxious existence, but the fact is that female surfers have always been there as integral parts of the wonderful wave culture. That's why Andrea Gabbard's attempt to chronicle the many great wave-riding women of the twentieth century is an outstanding contribution to the history of surfing.
She doesn't do it with words either, barring sporadic, short, and strong essays. Instead, she starts collecting photographs at the dawn of the 20th century with the Makaha International Surfing Contest held in Hawaii. She provides an enjoyable photographic walk-through of the women's side of surfing history.
On its 144 pages, you can see the greatness of Marge Calhoun (and read a rare interview by her), admire Lisa Anderson (and her two championships), and even learn about the hit '80s single recorded by the Australian surfer, Pam Grudge (it's good). All in all, it's a worthy addition to your surf library, coffee table, or surf backpack.
The Wave: In Pursuit of Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey (Anchor, 2011)
We can talk about huge waves in many ways. For example, they remind you how inconsequential your existence is in this vast universe that's full of jaw-dropping wonders, they can turn you into zealous believers in a higher power, or they can mold you into a self-proclaimed Buddha-like figure. But also, they’re quite similar to mythical beasts in terms of their glory, rarity, and scariness, and like in mythology, every beast has its obsessed hunter(s).
Laird Hamilton is one of those big-wave-hunters, and he's one of the most widely respected pro surfers to have ever lived. He travels around the world with his crew to find 100-foot rogue waves that would swallow ships and spit out whales. In The Wave, Susan Casey (a former editor of The Oprah Magazine) accompanies them on their potentially life-threatening adventures. Fortunately for everyone involved, that results in an absolutely incredible document hailed as the best book of the year (2011) by the San Francisco Chronicle.
It's not only a book about a surfer's obsession or an insightful look at a human reaction to (and relationship with) one of the scariest forces of nature. Laird Hamilton's crew also consists of oceanographers and big-wave scientists, which helps Casey combine the mythical nature of Hamilton's quest with science.
The result is everything the title promises: a compelling read through the massive energy intrinsic to the ocean and how bloodcurdling, electrifying, and awe-inspiring it can be.
Surf Is Where You Find It: The Wisdom of Waves Any Time, Anywhere, Any Way by Gerry Lopez (Patagonia, 2022)
If there's someone we can point out as a surf innovator, it's probably Gerry Lopez. In addition to his innovations on the board like glorious barrel rides and pioneering performances, he's also tried his hand (or, more likely, his foot) in everything involving a surfboard: kite-surfing, river surfing, foil surfing, tow surfing, and so on. He even came up with a new water sport called the stand-up paddle.
So, you're justified to cultivate high expectations from a book he's written, and it doesn't disappoint as it's not at all the personal story of a surfing legend who's too absorbed in their own life. Instead, it takes you on a journey through the space-time continuum from Hawaii's surf hubs as they were in the '50s and '60s to world-renowned waves and breaks like Pipeline, Uluwatu, and G-Land, and Gerry pays tribute to everyone he came across.
In each of its 38 stories, you can feel like you're taking a direct lesson from a forgotten surf pioneer, traveling around the world with the help of a competent surf guide, and reading the fictional tales of an imaginative prose writer. Moreover, the journey is not restricted to words either. The book contains hundreds of photographs from Gerry's own archives, which you probably haven't seen anywhere else before.
You might be happy to learn that, later this year, an updated version of this already canonical book that first saw release in 2008 will come out with more stories, more photos, and more wisdom, and Gerry will bless us all once again.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard (Penguin Books, 2016)
You heard of the company Patagonia, right? It's one of the most environmentally and socially responsible businesses still running, and their surf-related equipment and apparel are quite matchless, whether it’s wetsuits or surf hats. Their direct involvement with social and ecological activism programs makes them even more appealing for surfers like us.
If you agree, then you won't be disappointed by Let My People Go Surfing since it's written by the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. It provides readers with many insights into his adventurous, innovative, and conscious soul.
If you're thinking: "Well, why should I read the autobiography of a privileged businessman," let us ease your conscience by telling you that Yvon likens being a businessman to being an alcoholic or a lawyer right at the beginning of the book. That alone speaks volumes about both his ethical bearings, literary capabilities, and what you can expect from the rest of his biography.
In addition to being a businessman who steered a whole industry to environmental sustainability, Yvon is also quite the adventurer. He leads or participates in many exciting climbing expeditions. He's not a person who's afraid to take risks, be it in his personal life or business.
And what is a surfer without their bravery?
Swell: A Sailing Surfer's Voyage of Awakening by Liz Clark and Daniella Manini (Patagonia, 2018)
And here comes the great captain Liz Clark. In the book, you’ll see her on her 40-foot sailboat, and then you see her pulling out her surfboard and riding a wave in a place nobody has ever brought a board before. You’ll even witness her dreaming about how she'd explore the many marvels of the ocean and the land alike. Are you envious yet?
If you're not, let us also tell you that it had been her childhood dream since she was nine. At 22, she found a mentor who helped her realize her dreams—not a fate that befalls everyone and something we all definitely should have had. Yet, the courage to set sail by herself from San Diego, to venture to stay on the ocean by herself for long days, long nights, and through the mercy of weather and water, and to surf on unknown waves cannot be solely indebted to the presence of a mentor.
She left the prospect of becoming a pro surfer behind, her environmental studies, and her family and friends. The reason behind this bravery was Swell, her sailboat, that she took on an adventure unlike any other. In the end, it was a colorful journey, full of thrills and meditations, beauty and beasts, fear and bliss.
In Swell, her stories and memories are accompanied by the amazing illustrations of Daniella Manini, who's an artist and a graphic designer for many surf-related brands, including Patagonia and Billabong. Both the prose of Captain Liz Clark and the illustrations of Manini remind you that there's a lot more to surfing than meets the eye.
Honorable Mentions: Surf Books on Surf History
The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History by Joel Smith and Ron Croci (Island Heritage, 2016)
The documentary filmmaker Joel Smith and the illustrator Ron Croci join their forces to create a comprehensive illustrated history of surfing, and they succeed in their mission. It starts from the first cave paintings that show how old a sport surfing actually is, makes pit stops at milestones such as Duke Kahanamoku (who's seen as the grandfather of modern surfing), and ends with the contemporary state of the surfing world (which is quite popular, diverse, and fun).
Whether as a coffee table book or a book that you, your kids, or your friends will pick up from your library from time to time, it perfectly serves its purpose.
Surfer Magazine: 50 Years ed. by Sam George (Chronicle Books, 2010)
Although the history of surfing goes way back before Christ, as the entry above would stand witness, surfing as we know it today was mostly shaped during the '60s. So, if you want to study how the surf culture evolved since then, there's no better way than looking at the change of the most mainstream surf magazine, Surfer Magazine, over all these years.
Its 50 years edition, edited by Sam George, does a great job at chronicling all these years with the help of great images and behind-the-scenes details. Even though it's only 200 pages or so, in the end, you get the feeling that you've been there throughout.
So, what's surfing about? Is it the journey of a spirit? Is it an exercise of mindfulness? Is it a grand adventure only those who are brave enough can set out on? All the books on our list focus on a different aspect of surfing and show that it can be lots of things.
Once you read them, you might discover your own meaning to attribute to your surfing adventure, and who knows, you might go on an adventure yourself and then decide to write about it.