The World in the Curl

Academia takes a long look at surf culture

The World in the Curl

By Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul
Buy it here.

Right up front, you should know that this book is not a history of the act of waveriding. Not really. The World in the Curl rather, is a look at the evolution of surf culture, as experienced by surfers and non-surfers alike. Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, both of them PhDs who teach and surf in Southern California, use the book’s nearly 400 pages to show how outside, landlubbing forces have made the surfer lifestyle possible, and how, in turn (but to a lesser degree), surfing has made a pretty big mark on mainstream culture all over the world. The authors dive deeply into the connections between surfing and capitalism, colonialism, globalism, the military-industrial complex, race and gender, and the human-engineered environment. And as well-behaved, modern-day historians, they are all about complicating your understanding of surf history, and blowing up established narratives. For the most part—more on that later—they succeed.

Westwick and Neuschul’s main argument is that surfing requires leisure time. That no matter how rebellious surfers may feel, they’re only getting to score those all-day offshores because they’re at least middle class, if not wealthier. They’ve got enough cash to live by the beach, buy the equipment, and have time off. And in California’s case, the authors claim, defense industry and oil money built the coastal communities that supported surfers. When California prospered, surfing in California prospered. This wasn’t unique to American surfing either; the book points out that ancient Hawaii only developed a strong surf culture because they had abundant natural resources that afforded them plenty of leisure time too. Until the sugar and pineapple magnates showed up anyway, basically forcing the native Hawaiians into economic slavery.

From nineteenth century Hawaii, The World in the Curl moves along a familiar historical path to early California surfing, the beach blanket bebop days, the shortboard revolution and the counterculture, pro surfing’s explosion, and the evolution of big-wave riding. For some reason, Westwick and Neushul abandon their timeline around chapter eight and spend the last seven chapters biting off big hunks of other important surf themes including racism, the role of gender in surfing, environmentalism, and the billion dollar surf industry, among others. It’s a well-rounded look at surf culture, and the authors certainly did their research.

In September, we ran an article recommending 10 great surf books. You may have noticed that The World in the Curl is not on that list. Here’s why: while this book might serve as a decent jumping off point for a university-level survey course in surf culture, surfing itself often seems only tangentially related to the wider cultural currents Westwick and Neushul trace. The book is really just a tour of twentieth century American culture, viewed through the lens of surfing. That would be fine if The World in the Curl occasionally left the lectern and actually spoke to the surfers who, presumably, are the book’s intended audience. Yet somehow, after 400 pages, the reader is left with little sense of why surfing itself—the act of riding waves—has changed, who made those changes, and why. Sure, the major characters are there: Duke, Tom Blake, Simmons, Dora, McTavish, Nat Young, Curren, Andersen, Slater, and Laird, among many others. But how those people rode waves, why they were significant to surfers, what their style of waveriding was and why it was important—in short, their impact on how we ride waves today—is rarely addressed. Tom Curren, for example, is mentioned seven times in the text, with no real explanation of how he surfed and why he is viewed so reverentially by every surfer on the planet, short of explaining that he was “turning heads at Rincon during the early eighties,” and that he had a “fluid and graceful style.” Well, OK, but why is that important? Graceful compared to whom?

To pick on The World in the Curl for not being surfy enough is probably unfair. That wasn’t necessarily the authors’ aim. But there are far better books about the evolution of waveriding and surf culture told from an insider’s perspective that tell the reader way more about what surfing is and feels like, without being saddled by academic prose; Matt Warshaw’s The History of Surfing, for example. And there are scores of proper history books that tackle all the thorny societal issues that Westwick and Neushul take on, and which do a better job. Overall, the authors know their history, and have written a perfectly fine study of the outside forces that shaped surf culture, one that non-surfers may enjoy more than hardcore surfers. While it’s certainly worth having around as a bit of reference material, The World in the Curl isn’t your go-to history of surfing.

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