Summer doldrums be damned. The surf is up this week at two Santa Barbara bookstores as the authors of two entirely different forays into the surf literature landscape are passing through town to press the flesh and sign some copies of their freshly released books. Always ripe with the potential for mediocrity, mainstream nonfiction surf writing seems to be perpetually plagued by one of two problems: Either the author doesn’t fully commit to his or her audience—is it for sun- and salt-soaked stoke merchants or wave-sliding neophytes?—and thus wavers in a realm of mostly ineffective storytelling; or he or she does the exact opposite and pigeonholes the book with icky, cliché-riddled, tired metaphor-driven language aimed straight at the heart of only the extremely entrenched of the aforementioned camps. Luckily for us, neither of the writers arriving this week—one a relative newcomer to the Sport of Kings and the other a born-and-raised beach boy—fall victim to this troublesome trend. As a result, both have penned books that are well worth reading for entirely separate reasons.
First up is Michael Scott Moore’s Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawai‘i and California to the Rest of the World, with some Unexpected Results. Coming to Borders on July 31, Moore is a Redondo Beach native who resides in Germany after a Fulbright scholarship in journalism sent him there. A prolific cat who writes about politics, economics, and education on such heady stages as the Santa Barbara-based Miller-McCune magazine while also dabbling in surf-infused fiction that takes place in an imaginary Southern California beach town, Moore has blended both sides of his personality in Sweetness and Blood. Sparked by his wondering about who first brought surfing to the weird wave-riding outpost that is Germany, Moore follows his bliss to various and strange surfing frontiers and subcultures around the world in hopes of uncovering the Johhny Appleseeds who brought “surf-bathing” to their respective shores. In the process, Moore proves his ultimate thesis: that modern surfing is one of the greatest, most far-reaching, and impressive exports that America has produced. Ultimately, whether you agree with this theory or not becomes irrelevant as Moore introduces you to a cast of pioneering characters who are compelling enough in their own right to keep you turning pages.
Second comes adventure/travel writer extraordinaire Peter Heller and his book Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave. Mired in a mid-life funk of contemplation after finishing his book Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River, Heller—who described himself in a recent interview as someone who “likes to drink from the firehose” in life—sets out from his home in Denver to try and learn how to surf with an old college buddy during a week-long vacation in Southern California. From humbling first go-outs in and around Huntington Beach, Heller embarks on an unexpected journey into the life-altering power of playing in the ocean. Told with an honesty and self-deprecating sense of humor that is rarely found in surf writing, Heller’s tale is as much about surfing as it is about his personal growth as an individual once he starts getting his glide on.
There have been countless attempts over the years by surfers of all ilk to explain to the “unjazzed” masses what surfing means to us and the restorative and rejuvenating magic it works upon our lives every time we paddle out, but Heller, who never dropped-in on a wave until his early forties, does it as well, if not better, than anyone before him. With a finely trained ability to both have insight and share it, Heller connects the dots between the simple act of surfing, emotional health, personal redemption, and our duty to work as stewards of Mother Earth. Next time an employer, a parent, or a significant other questions why you surf or what the bigger meaning of so much time getting waterlogged actually adds up to, this book is the ideal answer to give them. Heller will be at Chaucer’s Books at 7 p.m. on Monday, August 2.