Sunday, March 2, 2014

Books = Knowledge

Books are bloody wonderful.  I’m sure that my bedroom presents somewhat of a fire risk because over the years I’ve done my best to cram it full of books and magazines - filling shelves, worktops and old wine crates with words printed on paper.  The same is true at my Dad’s house where I periodically deliver books to store on his shelves when there’s no space left on mine. 
It’s World Book Day this coming Thursday, March 6th.  To celebrate this and to remind myself (and hopefully you also) of just how important books are for the absorption of knowledge, the development of values and for straight-up stoking the imagination, I want to present a selection of my favourites:

Travel and Adventure

I lay a great deal of the blame for me spending a large number of my adult years skint and in wonderful foreign countries squarely on the shoulders of books about travel and adventure.
  • The Ra Expeditions – Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist who challenged conventional views on how ancient cultures spread around the world.  Following his incredible voyage across the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki raft, he set out to show that ancient Egyptians could have crossed the Atlantic on reed boats by doing just that on The Ra, providing a possible solution to such mysteries as parallel pyramid cultures on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The Cruise of the Snark – Adventure-fiction author Jack London’s account of his own real-life adventure on a two year voyage around the Pacific at the turn of the century, including early descriptions of wave-riding in Hawaii.
  • Vagabonding – Unlike destination-specific travel guides, Rolf Potts’ book is an insightful guide to making long-term and wide-ranging travel a reality.
  • Across the Empty Quarter – Wilfred Thesiger was one of the world’s last true explorers, travelling across and experiencing the blank spaces on the map.  He spent a great deal of time on the Arabian Peninsula and if you ever end up in that part of the world then this account of his journeys with Bedouin tribesmen across the desert is right up there on the essential reading list.
  • Paddling My Own Canoe – Audrey Sutherlan is a remarkable woman who, in-between holding down a full-time job and raising a family that included world-class surfer Jock Sutherland, spent her vacation each year exploring the rugged and inaccessible northeast coast of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian Islands.  She scrambled, swam and eventually paddled an inflatable canoe on a number of exploratory solo trips that are fairly certain to make you yearn for an adventure of your own.

Riding Waves

Transcribing the feeling of riding waves onto paper is a mighty difficult thing to do and one that many authors stumble and fall on.  How to write about something so personal and difficult to describe in a way that appeals to non-surfing readers without alienating fellow wave-riders?  In my mind, only three writers have really done this well.
  • In Search of Captain Zero – If you can get hold of a copy of Allan C. Weisbecker’s romantic, and ultimately somber, account of his journey from Long Island to Costa Rica in search of an old friend then do so.
  • The Voyage of The Cormorant – Currently on loan to a good friend who asked to borrow “the best book about surfing that I have”.  Christian Beamish is one of contemporary surfing’s most eloquent scribes and his book about building his own boat and sailing it down the wild coast of Baja Mexico in search of surf is raw, wild, honest, scary, real adventure.
  • Breath – Tim Winton is one of Australia’s greatest novelists and a dyed-in-the-wool surfer, but he had never, until Breath, written about surfing.  It was worth the wait.

John Steinbeck

I was originally going to write about literature, then erred towards American literature, before finally succumbing to the cold, hard, reality that all I was really doing was searching for an excuse to gush forth about how much I love the writing of John Steinbeck.  If you never had to read “Of Mice And Men” at school then I urge you to right that wrong as soon as you possibly can, and use that book as a gateway to the work of one of the last century’s most insightful writers.  Steinbeck writes about the essential human tragedy with an insight, wit, tenderness and melancholy that stops me in my tracks time after time and book after book. 

Big Pictures

Photographs were never intended to be viewed on a screen; they should be printed and hung on walls or immortalised in big, rich, coffee table volumes.
From bottom to top:
  • Leroy Grannis – Page after beautiful page of some of the most iconic surf photography from the 1960s and 70s.
  • 180 South – Try this on for adventure.  A photographic account (to accompany the movie) of Jeff Johnson and Chris Malloy’s journey retracing the steps of Yvon Chouinnard and Doug Tompkins from California to Chilean Patagonia.
  • The California Surf Project – It’s exactly what it says on the spine – a book by master-of-his-craft surf photographer Chris Burkard full of amazing, golden hour, images defining surfing in California.
  • Bend To Baja – A biofuel powered surfing and climbing road trip for Bend, Oregon to the tip of Baja Mexico.  It’s another one that’ll have you making plans for adventure.
  • Unexpected – Over the past thirty years Patagonia have amassed a library of “outdoor sports” images that is simply mind-blowing.  This book showcases some of the photography that has been featured in their catalogues with the stories behind many of them.
  • Way of the Bird – Andrew Kidman takes incredible photos of breaking waves, and Andy Davis has an iconic style of illustration that often focuses on surfers.  A simple idea to craft a children’s book by laying Ando’s illustrations over the top of Kidman’s photography  has created something amazing.
  • Sipping Jetstreams – Oh, wow.  Dustin Humphrey showcases the beauty of the world (specifically Morocoo, Cuba, Italy, Hong Kong, Barbados, Japan and Egypt) through the eyes of a surfer, illustrating just how incredible and broad an experience this pastime can give you.  I bought this big old book in Australia and easily justified the expense of posting it back to the UK.  It is directly responsible for me booking a number of flights and placing camera gear on an equal standing with surfboards on my packing lists.


A series of short and brilliantly funny novels about incompetent pirates who love ham and roaring.  I reckon that each one can be read in a day (on the beach or of solid travel) or over a more leisurely three days or so and they’re small, which makes them perfect for weekend trips.  My copy of the first book (The Pirates!  In An Adventure With Scientists) has done a lap of the planet in my bag and collected the signatures of twenty three friends and travelling strangers on the inside cover, none of whom told me I'd wasted their time in lending it to them.

My War and Peace

The Great War For Civilisation:  The Conquest of The Middle East.
I have been toiling away at this brick of a book on and off for three years now.  The reason that I haven’t given up on it is that it is the book that has been recommended to me more than any other, and by people whose opinions I absolutely value.  It is probably Robert Fisk’s defining work.  Fisk has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for over thirty years (first for The Times newspaper and then for The Independent) and holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. Simply put, he knows his subject. 
This is a powerful book about the history and impact of religious and political conflict in the Middle East.  It is often eye opening and harrowing and doesn’t make for pleasant bedtime reading.  But it is a statement of facts that it is important and valuable to be aware of and to in some way attempt to understand as a human being.    I hope that it doesn’t take me another three years to finish the second half.

I haven't posted links to websites where you can purchase these books because, although shopping online is convenient, I kind of prefer real life bookshops and they need the support.  If you are able to then please order and buy from your local independent bookshop.


  1. Caught inside: a Surfer's Year on the California Coast
    Daniel Duane (Author)

    Matt this is a must read.....

  2. Thanks Michael! I've heard of that book but not read it - I'll try and get me hands on a copy and check it out. Thanks for the recommendation, Mat.