"The Encyclopedia of Surfing"

Matt Warshaw's comprehensive volume of surfing lore offers an obsessive -- and engrossing -- ode to serious beach culture.


Heather Havrilesky
November 27, 2003 2:46AM (UTC)

Who wants to read the encyclopedia of anything, really? Not me. The word "encyclopedia" reminds me of sitting at a huge table in one of those uncomfortable bright orange plastic chairs they had in my elementary school's library, leaning over a bland entry about 23rd President Benjamin Harrison and trying to rewrite the stupid thing in big enough words to fill up the required half-page report. Even then, encyclopedias represented the educational establishment to me, the distillation of dramatic, colorful stories into dry, nutritional nuggets of tasteless information.

Matt Warshaw's "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" has as much in common with the average encyclopedia as a Ferrari has in common with a little red wagon. And it's not just the subject matter that makes this book so exciting. Frankly, as much as I enjoy watching really good surfing footage in movies, before I encountered Warshaw's work, I couldn't imagine reading about surfing, unless it was written by Jon Krakauer or David Foster Wallace.

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To my surprise, "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" is absolutely engrossing. Each entry is so well-written and lively and meticulously researched and unconventional, the details so carefully chosen and informative, the quotes and comments so sharp and witty, you'll find yourself pulled into a rich, alternate universe of surfing culture whether or not you're even mildly interested in it. In fact, I challenge you to find "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" at any bookstore, open to any page and read an entry, and see if it doesn't leave you wanting more.

Let's demonstrate this phenomenon right now by choosing a subject so bland and common, it would put most writers to sleep and warrant only a dull, cursory entry in most reference books:

"aloha shirt Casual short-sleeve print shirt, originally made in Hawaii; a colorful fashion item that through the decades has bounced all over the fashion spectrum, from practical to casually elegant; tacky and garish to collectible. Native Hawaiians for years had been hand-painting island motifs onto the drab tapa-bark palaka shirts favored by Chinese immigrant workers, when, in 1931, Honolulu tailor Ellery Chun began putting the same brightly colored pattern onto silk. Five years later, Kamehameha Garment Company in Honolulu brought the newly named 'aloha shirt' to mass market for the first time, and it instantly became a must-have fashion accouterment for mainland American tourists who were now pouring into Hawaii by the tens of thousands."

That's just the beginning. Warshaw goes on to tell us that the most popular early prints included hula dancers, tropical fish, and ukuleles, that Montgomery Clift wore the shirts, that President Harry Truman wore one on the cover of Life magazine in 1951, that the shirts went into decline in the mid-'50s when knockoffs were stocked at stores like Sears, that the shirts became associated with tourists and waiters in Polynesian-themed restaurants in the '60s and '70s, so that owners of the genuine article purged their closets of the things, that vintage shirts came back in the late '70s and '80s as they became retro-chic and were traded and collected, and that Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano declared 2000 the "Year of the Aloha Shirt," in honor of its originator, Chun, who had just died at age 91.

Since even the most boring objects come to life in Warshaw's hands, it's not surprising how much spirit and humor he brings to the work of summarizing the biographies of hundreds of key figures in surfing culture. Instead of reeling off major titles and dates, Warshaw employs the skills of a master storyteller in recounting the impact each individual has had on the sport. Thus, we not only learn that Bob McTavish is a "cheerful Australian surfer" who "began surfing on a 16-foot plywood paddleboard at age 12," and won major Australian titles in the '60s, but that he's "small and barrel-chested," "a fast, dynamic, arrhythmic surfer" who keeps "board and body in motion at all times," which some feel he does because "there's so much going through his mind." We also learn that in 1967, McTavish introduced the first vee-bottom surfboard and rode it in the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, where, although he showed "flashes of brilliance," he also wiped out a lot, and "was laughed at by old guard longboarders." Later, McTavish remarried, became a Jehovah's Witness, moved to the north coast of New South Wales, and had five children. In 1996, he was "inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, where the still-nimble 51-year-old disarmingly spoke of himself during the awards ceremony as 'just an old toymaker.'"

After navigating just a few pages of this comprehensive volume of surfing lore and finding myself lost in the details of some old surfer's life, or drawn in by Warshaw's insight and humor on general subjects like "academia and surfing," "Hong Kong," or "paddling," I realize that I'm encountering that rare work that springs from the mind and heart of an author absolutely consumed by his subject. Warshaw is the very best sort of teacher, a passionate storyteller with a thirst for the richest details and a knack for bringing soul and character into each biography or bit of lingo. "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" is a living, breathing masterpiece that transcends the narrow boundaries of most reference works, offering an exhilarating, colorful portrait of surfing culture to anyone who happens upon it.

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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