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Catch a wave -- and these books

The Encyclopedia of Surfing; Matt Warshaw; Harcourt: 774 pp., $40 Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing; Matt Warshaw; Chronicle Books: 218 pp. $35

December 28, 2003|David Rensin | David Rensin is the author of "The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up" and is working on a narrative/oral history of surf legend Miki Dora.

In 1962, in "Surfin' Safari," the Beach Boys sang about riding waves "from Hawaii to the shores of Peru." To a skinny, bespectacled 12-year-old in wintry northeastern New Jersey, the idyllic images conjured by the band's ebullient surf travelogue and a flood of other songs extolling the California sun/surfing/skateboarding lifestyle seemed both fantastically seductive and sadly out of reach. But two years later, relocated by the aerospace industry boom, my family and I arrived in Los Angeles on the kind of perfectly clear, blue-sky winter day, complete with sashaying palms, that I'd seen only in Disney movies. The words of a still-snowbound ex-girlfriend were ringing in my ears: "Wow! You'll be able to go surfing!"

She was right. Now I could surf year-round -- if I could get Mom to drive me and my friends to the beach. And so began a lifelong love affair with sliding down a saltwater mountain into a sweeping turn at the bottom, trimming up into the curl, walking as far forward on the board as I dared and just being there, perched on the poetic edge of an experience impossible to describe to someone who has never done it. Years have passed since I let my pectorals atrophy, gave away the board (regretfully) and got out of the water, but the emotional connection persists -- to those days spent catching waves and to the places, characters, traditions, heroes, antics, design evolution, individualism, unimaginable daring and just plain fun that make up surfing's history.

All these and more are captured, with judicious eye and boundless affection, by surf writer/historian Matt Warshaw in "The Encyclopedia of Surfing." Such an undertaking might be compared to braving the 30-foot giants crashing at Waimea Bay on Oahu's North Shore: They both take guts, man! Skill. The proper tools. Timing. In Warshaw's case, he has long written thoughtfully about the sport and its culture in magazines and books. He was once a top-rated amateur surfer, and he claims to own "the most complete library of surfing information in the world," much of it computer data-based. As for timing (Why now?), the book's introduction is replete with persuasive incident: the October 1999 issue of "Surfer" coming in at 340 pages; $4.5 billion in surf-industry sales in 2002; a stamp honoring surfing patriarch Duke Kahanamoku; the growing inclusion in major papers and newsweeklies of surfer obituaries. More such evidence is noted in the book's 48-page set of appendices, which cover surfing in print, in the movies, on video, in song, in magazines, in contests worldwide.

"Where to start?" the reviewer wonders -- no doubt the question Warshaw asked himself when faced with deciding what to include and what to leave out. At nearly 800 pages, 600,000 words and 1,500 entries from a paragraph to pages long, the encyclopedia's mass is daunting, but (if you'll allow the surfing analogy) it's surprisingly easy to ride. A spiritual cousin to "The Endless Summer" between hard covers, it's a comfortable meander around the surfing land- and seascape, full of delightful discoveries, wit and accessible narration. (You can almost hear the Sandals' 1966 score for the movie in the background.) There's even a definition of the perfect wave. "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" could serve as a primary text for Surfing 101 or a year's worth of pleasant coffeetable/deck reading. Open it anywhere; take your pick.

Warshaw starts his encyclopedia with a comprehensive "Brief History of Surfing," ranging from pre-Incan fishermen (who may have ridden waves in 3000 BC) to surfing's modern Hawaiian origins, its Malibu years, its commercialization and internationalization, its contests, the advent of short boards and the return of soul surfing (noncompetitive surfing for surfing's sake) and ending with today's "Planet Surf" mind-set. Surfing has become a global phenomenon, including a strong women's presence, the tow-in riding of huge waves often in open ocean, a healthier professionalism, a proliferation of clothing and accessory companies and growing media interest.

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