Here are 10 of the best books on surfing to fire up your stoke-meter.
Writing this post has been hella fun.
I have to read as many surfing books as I can, for research, for work!? OH REALLY?? Ohhhh okay then, I’ll take one for the team *says Grace as she escapes to her woman cave full of books and coffee and wine*.
Reading as many surf books as I could during lockdown has been a real sanity saver — and if you’re looking for a way to keep the stoke alive when you’re not on the water, I suspect you’ll feel the same.
Though far from exhaustive, this list features all kinds of great reads: from surf biographies of some of the greats to surf-inspired novels, poetic literature about waves, meditative memoirs, and more. I’ve separated the list into categories so it’s easier to find the exact kind of book you’re after, and if you want a personal recommendation, don’t hesitate to drop me a comment at the end of the post.
Pssst: these books make amazing gifts for surfers, should you have a birthday/holiday comin’ up that you need to start thinking about.
Tapping the Source – Kem Nunn
Tapping the Source is a fictional novel about a young man who ventures from his backward hometown in the desert to the wave-battered shores of Huntington Beach in search of his sister who disappeared 2 years ago, never to be heard from or seen again.
The protagonist, Ike, gets a landing when he arrives in a place quite unlike what he expected: Huntington is seedy, intimidating, and oozing with a sort of lurid darkness that he’s at once repulsed by and inexplicably attracted to.
This is one of the most iconic modern surf books out there, and after reading just a few pages it’s easy to see why.
Nunn writes in a way that’s impossible not to be drawn in by; his prose has a rhythm that practically sings off the page and the poetry with which he writes about the ocean, the feeling of catching a wave (or getting eaten by one), and his musings on the spirit of the sea are positively magical.
But that’s not all there is to the novel; the story itself is riddled with characters and plot devices that aren’t quite what they first seem. It’s a surf book, sure; but it’s also a book about trauma and repressed memories, first loves and the ruin of lust, drugs, crime, hedonism, and the subtle symbolism that weaves our lives together.
Soul Surfer Books
Saltwater Buddha – Jaimal Yogis
A book about surfing and Buddhism? MADE. FOR. ME.
Having long drawn my own comparisons between kitesurfing and mindfulness and having had this book on my TBR list for absolutely ages, I was seriously excited to read Saltwater Buddha.
The story reads almost as a fictional novel, though it’s clear that Yogis is writing from an autobiographical standpoint. The book recounts his youth, first spent with his new-age folks who imbued in him a deep reverence for Buddhism (Zen, in particular) and later spent intermittently running away to Hawaii to pursue what he deemed to be a life of ‘more’.
More what? Well, I don’t think even Jaimal was certain of that at the time.
All he knew was that he was relentlessly attracted to the ocean and becoming a sh*t hot surfer.
Each chapter presents his reflections on the nuances of surf, mindfulness and meditation, life itself — and how they all intersect, for him, when soaked in saltwater or getting barrelled.
I enjoyed the comparisons Yogis drew with this book, which reads more as a broad collection of personal essays rather than a plot-driven novel. The prose is pared-back and unpretentious, making it a quick read — but the lessons he imparts are worth taking your time with nonetheless.
He’s written other books of similar ilk, including All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Towards Enlightenment and The Fear Project.
Mindfulness and Surfing: Reflections for the Saltwater Soul – Sam Bleakley
Sam Bleakley is a professional surfer from the UK as well as a presenter, commentator, travel writer, and producer. He’s written piles of well-received surfing books like The Longboard Travel Guide and Surfing Brilliant Corners, though it’s in Mindfulness and Surfing that he writes on the philosophical side of the sport.
A beautifully bound book with a cover that’ll make you want to leave it out on display, Mindfulness and Surfing is a 144 page meditation on the sport, its relationship to nature, and the transience of everything around us.
I get the sense that this book is geared towards neither the experienced meditator nor the well seasoned surfer, but someone ready to dip their toes in and explore the relationship between the two for the first time. There is no deep dive, no great revelation – but rather a series of subtle observations on the presence that is asked of the person who waits for waves, waxes their board, and learns over and over the nature of the ocean.
Surf Travel Books
Grey Skies Green Waves: A Surfer’s Journey Around the UK and Ireland – Tom Anderson
Tom Anderson’s competitive surfing career took him all over the world at one point in his life, but in Grey Skies Green Waves he begins to explore the unexpected, shiver-inducing joys of surfing at home.
Originally from Porthcawl, South Wales, Tom’s book recounts his tales of discovering the surf at his home spot and beyond – from the iconic Cornwall surf scene (which he was more than a little reluctant to visit initially) to the hidden point breaks of Cardiff (yes, really, Cardiff).
The book reads like a travelogue not dissimilar to the likes of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round and Long Way Down series – except obviously Anderson writes as a surfer, not a moto head. If you’ve read those books, you’ll see the similarities I’m sure – crass British humour, easy-going prose, stream of consciousness retelling of antics from the road – and if you haven’t read those books, well, I highly recommend you change that ASAP.
Grey Skies is, if you ask me, a surf book written for real surf aficionados – people who, perhaps, are fans of Anderson (or at least follow the competitive surf world) or those who are familiar with the British/Irish surf scene. I say this because I feel his storytelling is somewhat less accessible to novices or those just looking for a surf-inspired novel to get lost in (Tapping the Source would be a better option, if that’s you).
That said, I enjoyed reading this one because the concept of discovering the beauty of your own home after travelling the world is something I resonate with, and Anderson conveys the journey – highs, lows, all of it – with an uncensored honesty that makes you feel as though you’re listening to an old friend chatting in the pub.
Slow is Fast: On the Road at Home – Dan Malloy
I’m a huge fan of basically anything the Malloy brothers put out there, media-wise (have you seen Fishpeople on Netflix? It’s directed by Dan’s brother, Keith). If you aren’t familiar with them, the TL;DR version is that they’ve been pro surfers for 20+ years, helped found the surf division of international outdoor brand Patagonia, and make surf movies – awesome surf movies.
I came across Slow is Fast while watching the brothers’ beautiful short about slowing down their life of jet-setting and competitive surf circuits in lieu of the Californian countryside and laying down roots.
Slow is Fast chronicles Dan and his friends’ journey along the coast of California with nothing but some bicycles, boards, and a burn to discover the beauty of their own backyard. Along the way, they meet a bunch of interesting characters, get lost on countless rambles in the backcountry of Cali, and encounter many, many great waves.
The Cruise of the Snark – Jack London
London’s 1911 book remembers the story of himself and his wife setting off to explore the world on their self-build vessel, The Snark. Costing them close to $30,000 – an absolute fortune in those days – they basically put all they had into the idea of the adventure and sailed away to the farthest-flung corners they could find: Hawaii, the Solomon Islands, and beyond.
It’s an insane story of ambition, perseverance, exploration – and surfing.
Yep, The Cruise of the Snark actually played a pivotal role in popularising the sport of surfing to a global audience (if you want to educate yourself more on the fascinating story of surfing being brought from the brink of extinction in Hawaii to an enduring international phenomenon, I highly recommend checking out the Irish surf doc Waveriders on YouTube).
London dedicated a chapter, entitled The Royal Sport, to his encounters with Hawaii’s local surfers. One of the greatest novelists of all time, he writes about surfing in a way that I don’t really think anybody else has ever been able to – before or since. Totally, utterly magical.
Roughing It – Mark Twain
Back in 1866, Mark Twain was a virtually unheard of writer with not much to his name except for a way of speaking that often made those around him think he was off his face. Hard to imagine, perhaps, knowing that he’d go on to write some of the world’s most celebrated novels.
But back then, Twain landed himself a dream job when he was hired by The Sacramento Union to travel to Hawaii, where he’d be paid for every letter he sent back to the paper reporting on what he found.
In his two books compiled from that year, Letters from Hawaii and Roughing It, Twain writes about the magic he found exploring the lush tropics of – what was then – a seemingly ‘undiscovered’ pocket of the Pacific Ocean.
Obviously, because it’s Twain, the prose is absolutely incredible. Totally captures the essence of what it’s like to discover – and fall in love with – a new place, its people, and way of life. Roughing It isn’t technically what you’d call a surf book, more of an adventure travelogue; but within his essays he writes about his first encounters with ‘surf bathing’ and trying surfing himself for the first time.
Just about the most authentic, unabridged adventure story you can get.
Surf Biography Books
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan
When I reached out to the Extreme Nomads Facebook group for surf book recommendations, this title was one that came up again and again. ‘Barbarian Days’ has become something of a cult classic as far as books about surfing go – and when you encounter Finnegan’s carefully constructed prose and heartfelt storytelling, it’s easy to see why.
This book even turned up on Obama’s reading list and won a Pulitzer. Yup, a surf book and yup, a Pulitzer. How’s that now?!
A writer at The New Yorker and multi-award-winning journalist, Finnegan writes about his surfing career in a way that’s nothing short of spellbinding, whilst staying accessible for the would-be or newbie surfer.
He takes us through his memoirs from a lifetime spent chasing waves around the world – Asia, Australia, South America, and the Pacific islands. He recalls his roots surfing the waves of California and Hawaii and frames them within a context of the unshakeable fraternity he later found amidst the sport of surfing.
It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: the way Finnegan is able to capture the essence of each facet of his stories, or the stories themselves (he’s surfed some HEAVY waves in his life). Part adventure tale, part social commentary, part memoir, Barbarian Days is one of those rare surfing books whose quality of writing manages to capture something that’s so very hard to articulate.
Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard
As far as memoirs go, this one has become iconic in both the outdoor and entrepreneurial worlds (for the uninitiated, Chouinard is the founder of international outdoor brand Patagonia. He’s also an avid rock climber, environmental advocate, and businessman).
Let My People Go Surfing gives the reader an insight into the mind of the man who founded what has become one of the most successful, environmentally conscious, and responsible companies in its niche. From selling micro-niche climbing gear out of the back of his car to maintain his climbing and surfing lifestyle to becoming one of the most celebrated businessmen in his field, Chouinard’s biography is a fascinating read.
Between the covers you’ll find philosophies on running a value-led business, practical reflections on being an entrepreneur, and fascinating bits of history that you’ll be surprised you never knew before (like, did you know Patagonia were on the forefront of offering family leave to employees who’d recently had a baby?).
A hopeful, inspiring read full of integrity and honesty.
Surf History Books, Photography & Coffee Table Reads
Surfing: 1778 – Today – Jim Heimann
Described as an “unrivaled tribute to the breadth, complexity, and richness of surfing”, this collectors book is the culmination of years of research and includes close to 1,000 surf photographs and essays from renowned surf journalists.
Arranged into 5 chronological chapters, the book details everything there is to know about surfing history and culture – from the first recorded point of contact between European explorers and surfers to the sport’s contemporary influence on industries like art, fashion, film, music, and more.
This 600-page hardcover behemoth is a must-have for anyone serious about showing off their surfing chops in the sitting room, or simply those looking to know all there is to know about the sport of kings.
Still unsure about which surfing book to go for? Shoot me a comment down below and I’ll give you a personal recommendation.