Tom MacWright

I read Barbarian Days by William Finnegan on


This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 but it seems like it’s peaking in popularity now, six years later. I saw people reading it on the subway, saw it mentioned in other media, and heard about it from friends. Surely there’s something about escapism and travel that resonates more strongly in this time when we’ve just escaped the worst of a pandemic and are starting to travel and live again.

I liked it. I also felt like I should have liked it more. It’s a memoir, a beautifully-written one by someone with a sharp memory and great sentences. Like some other books that talk about the era when you could travel on the cheap, knowing the locals, exploring the world, it gave me a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. I kept thinking about each reef he encountered – is it still alive? Can you still just get a job as a teacher and live off of your earnings for an idle year? Maybe you can. Maybe it’s okay. But the past that he describes feels painfully inaccessible, whether because my personality is distinctly different from his, or the way the world has changed since his heyday.

It’s good writing. The descriptions of water never feel repetitive, but it’s a heck of a lot of descriptions of water. His ability to describe people and relationships is spectacular. Occasionally it felt a little wandering, as it should, because in some ways it’s a book about wandering. But very end, the last chapter or two, it really picked up and drew me back in.