Surfing memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by New Yorker journalist William Finnegan (Corsair) has scooped the 28th William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for its "account of the physical and psychological drive to achieve athletic perfection".
The judges called his book “compelling, elegiac and profound”. In addition to having won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography this year, it also featured on president Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
The title is surfing’s second appearance on the shortlist to date and the first since 1991.
Barbarian Days tells of how young Bill Finnegan caught the surfing bug in 1960s California and Hawaii, before travelling the world looking for beaches that offered undiscovered waves to master. It is also the story of an outsider realising his place in the world and provides an insight into "the code and language of the surfer".
Finnegan was announced as the winner of the 2016 award by judge and broadcaster John Inverdale at a ceremony this afternoon (24th November) at BAFTA in central London. As well as a £28,000 cheque, Finnegan was awarded a William Hill bet worth £2,500 and an exclusive day at the races.
Broadcaster and journalist Mark Lawson, joining the judging panel for the first time this year, said: “Although the author himself acknowledges the scepticism of some about whether surfing is a sport, the judges felt that Finnegan's account of the physical and psychological drive to achieve athletic perfection make Barbarian Days a worthy winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. The autobiographical detail and precision of the writing also make it rewarding to those who might think they would struggle to get on board with surfing as a subject.”
Finnegan has been a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine for nearly 30 years. He is also the author of Cold New World (Random House), A Complicated War (University of California Press), Dateline Soweto (University of California Press) and Crossing the Line (W. W. Norton & Co). Now in his 60s, Finnegan is said by William Hill to be "still active in the sport and has no plans to stop surfing".
William Hill spokesman and co-founder and chair of the award, Graham Sharpe, said: “Compelling, elegiac and profound throughout, Barbarian Days offers a revelatory and often dramatic study of the elegant art of surfing. As we follow William Finnegan’s story we see not just the maturing of a boy into a man, but of a rebellious soul coming to terms with society on his own terms. We also see, as we so often do, how sport reflects politics, economics and an ever-shrinking world, as surfers fight to protect their hidden beaches and continue their search for new waves to master. It’s a widescreen, technicolour winner: with a Pulitzer Prize and now the Bookie Prize to its name, surely Hollywood cannot be far behind.”
Finnegan triumphed in a shortlist referred to by Sharpe as “a ‘Magnificent Seven’ of sporting books”. His competition included Diana Nyad for her memoir of a record-breaking long-distance swimming career, Find a Way (Pan), Rick Broadbent’s biography of Czech Olympic "legend" Emil Zátopek, Endurance (Wisden), and Australian broadcaster Tim Lane and editor and author Elliot Cartledge’s investigation into the life and death of cricketer and commentator Peter Roebuck, Chasing Shadows (Hardie Grant). Football was the subject of two entries, Oliver Kay’s biography of “football’s lost genius” Adrian Doherty, Forever Young (Quercus), and Rory Smith’s study of how English football managers helped export the game around the world, Mister" The Men Who Gave The World The Game (S&S UK). Rounding off the shortlist was Christopher McGrath’s history of horse racing through the lives of 25 horses and those that owned them, Mr Darley’s Arabian (John Murray).
In addition to Sharpe as chair - who founded the award with John Gaustad, founder of the Sportspages bookshop, who passed away earlier this year - the judging panel for this year’s Award consisted of journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson; retired professional footballer and former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and The Times columnist and author, Alyson Rudd.
Past winners include Nick Hornby, Duncan Hamilton, Donald McRae, Anna Krien and David Goldblatt.
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