10 Books That Every Surfer Should Read


One of surfing’s most enduring misconceptions is the idea that surfers don’t read.  Forget any sociological data one might collate –- the fact that for over 40 years I’ve made a living writing about surfing gives the lie to that old stereotype. And you are, after all, reading this now.

Truth is, more surfers read, and are probably reading more, than at any other time in history. Monthly circulation numbers for the old surf mags (blessed be their names) were downright tepid compared to the number of individual visits to a website like the one you’re looking at now, not to mention all those Instagram stories. Still, while the current wave of short-form content offers the convenience of a quick sweet-salty snack, there is, on occasion, a hankering for a solid meal. And for that, you turn to a book.

Some notable, some awful

There are literally thousands of books about surfing to choose from. Well, at least a thousand, as a stroll through the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center’s library stacks will attest. Some of these volumes are quite notable, William Finnegan’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life foremost among these titles. Others are quite awful, like the ordinarily brilliant Paul Theroux’s 2021 North Shore misfire Under The Wave at Waimea. There are even a few classics, like Tom Blake’s seminal 1935 tome Hawaiian Surfboard (a pristine first edition, complete with dust jacket, will cost you a cool $18,000) and political scientist and author Eugene Burdick’s fascinating 1956 surf-socio-political novel The Ninth Wave.

But while it seems there are enough surf books out there to fill a Teahupo’o barrel, only a few meet my criteria for “required reading.” These are works that help construct –- and in some cases shore up –- the foundation of a fully integrated, fully informed, and fully involved understanding and appreciation for the surfing life. Again, this is my list, gleaned over 57 years of reading about surfing, and writing about it for almost as long. Consider this a good take-off spot from which to build your own impressive library.

Cover of Gidget

Did she start it all?


The book that changed everything


First published in 1957, this bestselling “coming-of-age” story of a precocious teenager’s discovery of Malibu’s nascent surf scene is not only perhaps the best novel ever written about surfing, it’s undeniably the most impactful. Great characters, authentic period vernacular and a delightful, fully-articulated heroine are icing on the cake. By introducing the rest of the world to the magic of California summer surf culture, this is the little book that changed…well, everything.


A follow-up to surfing historian Matt Warshaw’s acclaimed Encyclopedia of Surfing (2003), this equally authoritative volume represents not only the most meticulously researched chronological history of the sport, but Warshaw’s best writing. It’s as if the deliberately dispassionate tone of the encyclopedia led to a decision to eschew academic examination in lieu of an imminently readable combination of pertinent information and informed opinion.  If you could only have a single book about surfing, this would be it.


When it came to telling the Mickey Dora story, author David Rensin cracked the code: let those who claimed to have known him spill it. Considering that Dora is perhaps the sport’s most iconic archetype (for better or worse), this exhaustive oral history peels back the curtain, exposing the emotional cost of life spent as a rebel without a pause. Dora’s is our ultimate cautionary tale; no surfer could read this and still want to be him.

10 Books That Every Surfer Should Read

A fantastic look at Polynesian history.


The puzzle of Polynesia


The only book on the list that’s not about surfing…but in many ways, it is. A colorful volume examining “The Puzzle of Polynesia,” author Christina Thompson, editor of the Harvard Review, dives deep into the fascinating story of the first people to populate the Pacific, a remarkable diaspora that culminates with the colonization of the Hawaiian Archipelago. If as a surfer you ever plan on someday going there, read this book to absorb the absolutely essential cultural humility it engenders. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it, especially the first time you paddle out at Velzyland.


Written by the legendary Phil Edwards (with contributions from Sports Illustrated writer Bob Ottum), the equally iconoclastic Dave Parmenter considers this volume to be surfing’s “Good Book.” Meaning an inspirational philosophical treatise disguised as a memoir that not only captures all the innocent joy of being a surfer in the 1950s and ’60s, but provides a useful template for a fulfilling contemporary surfing existence. Long out of print, it’s only available to buy from private collectors. But just because it’s hard to find doesn’t mean it shouldn’t belong on this list. Even more so, actually.

Antithesis to Gidget

BREATH (2009)

Written by renowned and much-beloved Australian author Tim Winton, this complex, somewhat sad coming-of-age story set in a fictitious West Australia surf town (the absolute antithesis to “Gidget’s” sunny romp) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Enough said in that department. But with its unflinching depiction of the often-deleterious nature of the surfing compulsion, this novel effectively serves as a testament to the benefits of a more well-balanced surfing life.

10 Books That Every Surfer Should Read

Vicky Heldreich Durand’s story needs to be read. Photo: Wave Woman


Little-known classic


To my infinite shame, I have to admit that I’d never heard of Vicky Heldreich Durand until the publication of her memoir. I’m probably not alone in that dereliction. So I’ll encourage every surfer of both genders to get this book and realize that not all of our courageous, committed cultural pioneers were men –- and men who faced but a fraction of the sociological challenges met so adeptly and inspirationally by women like Durand. If this book had come out in 1963, it may have changed the entire direction of the sport.

Excerpts From the New Book 'In Deep: The Collected Surf Writings of Matt George'

‘In Deep: The Collected Surf Writings of Matt George


IN DEEP (2023)

What can you say about a collection of surf magazine features that includes the very first profile of teenaged Kelly Slater, written in 1989, and another written about the 11-time world champ in 2021? As Kelly put it in his foreword to Matt George’s impressive volume: “Matt’s book captures an important time in surfing’s written history — a time when you didn’t know people by looking at their Instagram; when you learned who they were by traveling with them, riding with them, and experiencing life with them.

The way it was

PEANUTS (2009)

Laguna Beach surfer/writer/waterman Craig Lockwood’s evocative oral biography of the late George “Peanuts” Larsen, one of the most under-appreciated figures in surf history, pays homage to this extraordinary man and the extraordinary times during which he flourished. 

“I’m not talkin’ about the way it was,” Larson once told Lockwood, speaking of the post-WWII era along the coast of Southern California. “Just the way it’s never gonna be again.” Google this book and revel in our collective heritage.

TYPHOON (1902)

Okay, I’m getting literary here, and if author Joseph Conrad’s tale of a nondescript steamship caught in a malevolent typhoon isn’t about surfing, it comes pretty damn close. Consider this passage, which just as easily could have been written about getting caught inside on a really big day: The long, long stress of a gale does it; the suspense of the interminably culminating catastrophe; and there is a bodily fatigue in the mere holding on to existence within the excessive tumult; a searching and insidious fatigue that penetrates deep into a man’s breast to cast down and sadden his heart…”