Summer has given way to fall, so thankfully, students across the country are leaving the lineup and returning to school. Reading lists will be assigned, and while they’ll undoubtedly feature some very important parts of the great literary canon, those lists likely won’t include the best works of surf lit (unless being handed out at a surf studies program of course). Here’s a list of ten surf books every surfer should own.
History of Surfing (2010) By Matt Warshaw
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 by Chronicle Books. A gem.
Surfing Guide to Southern California (1963) By Bill Cleary and David Stern
A meticulously-written guide to every known nook and cranny that was surfed in Southern California in the early 1960s. You could probably make good use of it today. It’s nostalgic as all hell, and a joy to thumb through, a full five decades after it was published.
Caught Inside (1997) By Daniel Duane
There’s just something…true about this book. It covers Duane’s evolution from newbie to competent surfer in the workaday but beautiful lineups of Santa Cruz. For the most part, Duane avoids hackneyed surf clichés while noting the little things that make up the bulk of a surfing existence. You’ll recognize yourself in Caught Inside, whether by identifying with Duane’s experiences, or with one of the caricatures of local surfers that make appearances throughout the book. You also might try to move to Santa Cruz after reading it.
The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories (1999) Edited by John Long
A bit of a mishmash of articles from surf and mainstream mags, The Big Drop is full of classic bits of surf journalism, tall tales, and some truly epic bullshitting. The two best pieces are “Cold Sweat,” Ben Marcus’ first-look at the relatively unknown Mavericks in 1992, and “Big Time,” Dave Parmenter’s prescient plea, written in 1987, for a return to glory of big wave surfing, neatly tying into his own experience at Todos Santos, one of the best session stories of all time.
Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, With Some Unexpected Results (2010) By Michael Scott Moore
I know nothing of Moore’s surfing ability, but his writing chops energize this pretty cool historical map of how surf culture spread globally, with Moore taking a particular interest in the less-traveled (read: written about) surf scenes. He’s a serious journalist (who has been held captive by Somali pirates since early 2012), who can dig in and get at the meat of a story. Which in this case means traveling to each country he writes about and surfing there, all while trying to figure out who introduced surfing to that region, then pondering how each culture makes surfing its own. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’ll love this.
In Search of Captain Zero (2001) By Allan Weisbecker
A cautionary tale about the risks of dirtbag traveling, or an exhilarating call to strike out on a grand adventure—it’s sort of up to the philosophical bent of the reader. Weisbecker has lived a strange life, and his memoir of a challenging mission into Central America to find a long lost buddy and to surf some warm pointbreaks is too campy-spiritual, too riddled with surf clichés, and too grouchy to be a “great book,” but it is nevertheless a great read. Part of the surfy canon.
The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean (2010) By Susan Casey
Casey isn’t a hardcore surfer, but that actually makes this book a little more refreshing, because she writes about the history and science of huge waves and big wave surfers with no cynicism whatsoever. But really, despite an intimate look at the lives of some legendary hellmen, the book is way more interesting when Casey gets into giant ships being whalloped by rogue waves. It’s thrilling and nightmarish stuff.
Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume: 1936-1942 (1998) Photographs by Don James
Some pre-Gidget era heaven right here. Southern California as it exists only in your time-traveling dreams. What else do you need to know?
Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth (2011) By Chris Dixon
Cortes Bank is a fascinating, scary place, and Dixon treats it with the respect it deserves in this biography of the most challenging big wave break on earth. His accounts of his own experiences at Cortes—watching, not riding—are exhilarating. Dixon is a very observant writer, and his description of the sounds the behemoth waves at Cortes make is by itself worth the price of the book.
Photo/Stoner (2006) By Matt Warshaw
Ron Stoner was the world’s best surf photographer in the 1960s. By the mid ’70s, he had disappeared completely. Nobody really knows what happened to Stoner; he was declared dead in the 1990s. His classic shots of the southern California surf scene before crowds really took hold are beautiful and heartbreaking. The photos alone make this book a must have, with Warshaw’s biography of Stoner a compelling read.
Any other recommendations? Let us know in the comments.