Surfing With Sartre – Book Review

You might assume Surfing With Sartre uses surfing as a metaphor to explore concepts of existentialism, but you’d be wrong. The author, Aaron James, who also wrote Assholes: A Theory, expounds and explores many ideas of various philosophers and their schools and much of this is certainly applicable to life outside of carving a wave, but he does, in fact, believe there’s something special about surfing. And maybe there is. After all, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that water skiing was “the ideal limit of aquatic sports,” and he never knew surfing, James tells us. Sartre had such high regard for water skiing, snow skiing, and other forms of “sliding over water,” that James asserts he considered them to “exemplify human freedom.”

One feature of the book, which can be considered either daunting or exciting, is that it does not dumb its philosophical discussions down much. While this can make the reading dense and almost technical at points, it’s refreshing to see an author respect his readers enough to convey the nuance of complex ideas. And really, can you simplify Kant? Should you want to?

One idea that comes in for a thorough exploration in Surfing is that of “flow.” Flow is a sort of transcendent state of mind that one enters when one is “in the groove.” Sure, it could be an NBA player nailing fifteen three-pointers in a row, but it also can be the welder who lays down a perfect “stacked dimes” bead on vertical pipe or the accountant who has a dozen tabs open at once and finishes her report in half the time she thought it would take without it feeling like a strain. James, of course, relates the special connection he believes surfing has to the flow state of being, but he also imparts the broader lesson that we should all seek out flow wherever we can and spend as much time in it as possible if we want to lead a richer life.

Surfing with Sartre is a fun book. James sprinkles surfer lingo and the odd bit of profanity into his conversational writing style but simultaneously peppers nearly every page with footnotes. This mix of academic rigor and popular treatment strikes a pleasing tone. Pondering life’s biggest questions can be a gnarly undertaking, but that doesn’t mean Surfing won’t leave you stoked.

One comment

  1. After having read about a third of the book, I can’t say that it has given me much to be enthusiastic about yet. I suppose that James is trying to do with existentialism what Pirsig did with metaphysics. So far, James hasn’t conveyed enough of either the existentialism or the surfing to engage me. I’ll finish the book with hope that James eventually sinks either an intellectual or aesthetic hook. As for flow, I greatly preferred just reading (or listening to) Csikszentmihalyi directly. Good review.


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