The Best Surf Books of All Time

Extending past swell charts and Instagram captions there’s plenty of good literature out there for surfers to get stoked on. I’ve long been an avid reader and found the best books are those which are most relatable. So, it would be pretty safe to assume I’ve got my beak stuck into a few surf books over the years. Below is a list of a handful of my favourite surf books out there. Sure, it’s somewhat subjective but aren’t all lists? My feelings are that none of these will disappoint. If I ever had to start a surfers book club these are what I’d put out first, enjoy. 

P.S most of these books come with pictures! 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

If you answer yes two both these questions then this book is for you. Do you have an affinity for strong writing? Do you froth for surfing? BOOM! Go get yourself a copy of what I personally view as the best book on this list, Barbarian Days. The Author William Finnegan goes above and beyond on this one to give you one helluva riveting read. Enjoy this memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment! The book features in-depth and intimate accounts of Finnegan’s first ‘meetings’ with surf culture, waves and the relationships that paved the way to where he is today. If you’re the average ‘surfer brah’ you might need a dictionary as the Author does tend to show you how big his ‘vocabulary’ is.

The most relatable part of the book, for me, is how the pursuit of waves ebbs and flows in a surfer’s life. One day you’re consumed the next your focus must shift as the ‘real’ world beckons. Recently I’ve been fortunate enough due to my freelance work-nature that my day, as it did when I was a child, has been structured around 1 question – are there waves? Beyond the waves delve into Finnegan’s personal triumphs and failures. Being a surfer is both the hardest and best thing about who we are it’s all about perception. If you lust for old-school adventure, get on this one. Once read give it away but make sure it comes back as it’s 100% gonna be picked up again.

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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

“I’ve been a businessman for almost 50 years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.” That right there ladies and gentlemen, is the very beginning of Yvon Chouinard’s biography, Let My People Go Surfing. The founder of the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, a business that has consistently challenged the status quo and pulled a whole sector closer to sustainability. It’s not every day that a surfer/climber builds one of the most widely respected and socially responsible businesses on earth. Right behind Barbarian Days, this book comes in at a close second.

Yvon Chouinard is a maverick, a man not afraid to take and shoulder risks. He not only inspired change but he instigated it, creating an environment for those around him to flourish. The amount of knowledge tucked between the folds of these pages is awesome and inspiring. If there’s a flat spell on the charts grab this book slap up the hammock and stretch it out.

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Girl In The Curl by Andrea Gabbard

When it comes to females and their history through the surfing ages this is quite literally the one and only book there is. Girl in the Curl is a comprehensive illustrated history of female surfers. The book captures an important and overlooked part of the sport’s past in stunning colour.

This one may be a bit of a cheat as it’s more pictures and anecdotes than words to paper. But still, it manages to highlight how female surfers have been integral to the sport from the very beginning. Enjoy this photographic walk through the last century of women’s surf. From Layne Beachley and her freckly face to Lisa Anderson the double world champ this book takes you through it all. Sure it may have been published some 20 years ago but it still remains relevant today. Perhaps it’s time for a new one this time including the likes of Carrisa Moore and Steph Gilmore.

Putting gender aside, it’s a beautiful walk through the past, a time capsule of the sport, alongside a detailed look at the evolution of wave culture.

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The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw

If surfing was an option for a University credit, let’s call it Surf 101, then this would 100% be the prescribed textbook – The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw. I compare it to a textbook because you gotta really, REALLY, be stoked on surfing to enjoy this one. It’s not fictional tales with pleasurable plotlines but rather moments in surfing that have been chronicled with pictures painted by intelligent commentary.

Can you imagine what the professor lecturing you would look like for Surf 101? To be honest they’d probably look like Matt Warshaw. Warshaw is a former professional surfer, former writer and editor at Surfer magazine, and the author of dozens of feature articles and large-format books on surfing culture and history with this being the Grand Daddy of them all. Basically, the dude knows what’s what.

Surfing has been detailed exhaustively in this one. Just shy of 500 pages and with over 250 rare photographs, The History of Surfing gives the sport a voice that is authoritative, funny, and wholly original. The writing is as compelling as the scholarship behind it. This one is for all the surf nerds.

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For the Love by Kelly Slater

Since we’re on the topic of surfing history we’d be remiss for not bringing up the GOAT. Obviously, Kelly Slater makes the list, or rather his book does. For the Love may be a little dated, published back in 2008 when Kelly had only managed 9 titles (Yeah, I know right… what a loser). A few years before he published Pipe Dreams which between you and me was how we say in South Africa – hond kak.

With that being said and to my surprise Kelly, like he did in many a heat before, came back with a bang and gave us For the Love. While the first book of his was his autobiography, this one is his scrapbook. Filled with pictures from his very storied surfing career which range from hanging with friends to surfing some of the most exotic locations in the world to winning world titles to his views on politics and the environment.

In this revealing and heartfelt tribute, written with surfing veteran Phil Jarratt, the world’s best surfer talks about a life filled with big wins, big money, and big loves. From heartache to fame sprinkled with a dash of Kelly’s personal philosophies the man puts his emotions on display making for a great read. Next time you’re on a long-haul flight whip this one out and get away from that 6-inch screen. At the end of the day, who knows the GOAT better than Kelly?

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The Code by Shaun Tomson

Life stories and lessons beyond drunken escapades are not shared too frequently among surf hood. Out to change that narrative we find Shaun Tomson and his book – The code. Shaun needs no introduction, if you’re sitting there scratching your pip at the name Shaun Tomson … fix it. Those who truly define their own success and then go on to realise it, are the ones who really inspire.

Shaun is just that type of person. A couple of years ago I had the privilege of interviewing the man where we briefly spoke about The Code (which until then had been nothing but a shelf ornamentinspired I went home and proceeded to read the book cover to cover.

The outline is pretty simple. Tomson lays out a direct lesson or rule that can be mirrored with something surfing. Following that he draws parallels to his own personal story that inevitably led him to that lesson. Memories of waves, surf trips, contests, or even specific wipeouts all serve on the point. Shaun was a man possessed in the best possible way, following his dreams whilst traversing the globe. He took what the ocean gave him and inspired change in his own life. From a man who’s suffered one of the deepest pains a farther could there’s something for everyone to learn/gain from reading the code.

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Mr. Sunset: The Jeff Hakman Story by Phil Jarratt

Chalk up another one for author Phil Jarratt as we add a second one of his books to the list. Alongside For the Love (which he co-authored)comes Mr. Sunset: The Jeff Hakman Story. Here Jarratt pens the definitive biography of surfing prodigy, drug addict and world champ Jeff Hakman. Hakman was also the man behind Quiksilvers’ move into America. Like your favourite point break, the book rolls out with highs and lows coming to a close with a thunderous end section by way of the man’s struggle with drug addiction.

Jarratt does well to capture the camaraderie, adventure, and innocence of the surfing subculture in its formative years. What pushes the book to that next level is the electric photographs and brilliant layout and design. If you’ve worked in print media as I have you’ll appreciate the finer details thrown in there. A surfing legend living like a rockstar this book will give you what you’re looking for.

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The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey

Wave junkies/nerds we got another one for ya. Written by the former editor of the Oprah Magazine, Susan Casey, this combo of rogue waves, Laird Hamilton and science gets perfectly blended into an educational cocktail that’ll get you frothing. In short sea monsters exist and this is the tale of those brave enough to confront them.

Casey journeys alongside two groups of individuals who are the same but oh so different- big wave scientists/ researchers, and big wave surfers. The premise is simply: most people see big waves as something to get away from. Here, Casey attempts to understand the people who’ve adopted a different approach and devoted their lives to them. Be it intellectually (through the researchers) or physically (through the surfers).

Don’t take this book as your leisure reading on that next cruise (post-pandemic obviously) or you’ll be constantly cranking that neck toward the horizon, scoping for freak death waves.

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Surf Is Where You Find It by Gerry Lopez

If Mr. Pipeline puts out a book best believe I’m reading it. Published in 2008 I got on this one a little late around 2013 whilst on a flight to Bali. In the Same way that Yvon Chouinard’s words bear significance, so too do Gerry Lopez’s. The man never seems to take the great ride he is on for granted and captures the stoke in every aspect of his life. This attitude translates to his surfing style which so many of us have tried and for the most part failed to emulate.

Extracting significance from barrels and pumping surf this book is relatable to all of us who’ve scored outback. To be fair the same can be said for those who have yet to feel what the best wave of their life feels like at a base level. Through a number of tales/lessons, Lopez waxes lyrical and reflects upon a lifetime spent among waves. Equally as impressive as his surfing is Lopez’s writing that garners the feel of a zen master.

For surfers, a must-read. Though he is one of the all-time legends of surfing, you wouldn’t know it by reading his book. He is quick to heap praise and credit on so many others and is appreciative and grateful for all that has happened to him.

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