Once you’ve been surfing for a while (for me it’s about 10+ years on and off, more like 2 years of consistently getting in the water 2-3X a week) there are experiences, slang, memories, and sessions you begin to take for granted. At least for me, some of the pure unadulterated joy of surfing comes a little less often, hindered as it is by my serious-surfer mindset. If you’re like me, when you make the transition from novice to intermediate (as I hope I have, though I’m not sure how to even define “novice” or “intermediate”), it’s quite easy to lose the sense of freshness and promise that surfing holds.
Which is why we all need to read more books like Kook, by Peter Heller. The book, published in 2010, came to me from a list of surfing books to read (forgive me, I can’t remember where I read the list), so I ordered it and began reading last week. It arrived with a pile of other books I’d ordered, as one of several books about surfing I plan to read. Consider it the first book in my surf-literature odyssey, my way of approaching surfing from another, considerably more comfortable and easy entry-point—the written word.
Heller’s Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave, is a peppy-paced mix of surfing adventure, travel writing, and environmental call-to-action. His mission is simple: go from kook on a monster longboard to surfing a mighty Mexico wave on a short board in 12 months. What ensues, however, as he emphatically mentions throughout the book, is an adventure about much more than surfing. It is an adventure in humility, surf culture, friendship, localism, self-knowledge, frustration environmentalism, love, and kookiness.
I hadn’t even been here a month and I was already getting proprietary and aggro.
What I most love about Heller is his honesty with the reader and himself. He is almost painfully self-aware of his shortcomings, missteps, and blunders throughout the book, catching himself being a jerk, a kook, an aggro surfer, and so much more as he begins his journey in California and then travels along the coast of Mexico in search of the perfect wave. His outlook on surfing is simultaneously pragmatic yet romanticized, sensational yet grounded, and I can’t help but love him for each revelation and pitfall he encounters.
He loves the ocean, this is more than clear, with the same abiding love surfers and non-surfers alike will relate to. His journey can’t help but be relatable to a reader, because at its heart his journey is an inherently human one—a journey of love and learning.
if you measure intelligence as an ability to survive millions and millions of years as a species in harmony with one’s environment…
The environmental anecdotes he weaves into his Zen-like experiences of the ocean shock the reader in parallel to his own surprised realization that the earth is being destroyed more rapidly than ever before. The degree of capitalism-driven development and degradation of the natural land he encounters and analyzes throughout his blissful moments in the sea remind us of our own role in stewardship and protection.
Heller’s rhetorical method of presenting a beautiful scene he encounters with the dark-side reality that it may be gone in less than 100 years prevents you from completely romanticizing the scene, bringing you into a push-pull tug-of-war between jumping out of bed to go surf or immediately joining a local beach clean-up (I vote for both).
I would be a man who surfs, not a surfer.
Kook is derogatory term for beginning surfers, surfers who cut people off, surfers who are childishly silly, surfers who whoop and cheer for a 2-foot wave, surfers who are not careful and can even be dangerous in the water. We are told that to be a “kook” is bad, that it is the antithesis of what we should aspire to be as surfers. Yet, I wonder how much some of us, including myself, wouldn’t benefit from a little more kookdom, a little more child-like joy. I call myself a kook because I still whoop and laugh and get excited for small waves. I’m a kook because I define kook differently than most.
Heller taps into this alternative definition of kookdom, not as the negative stereotype of novice surfers, but the carefree willingness to laugh at oneself, and the ability to get genuinely stoked on those tiny achievements many of us take for granted. Some of my favorite moments in Heller’s book are his descriptions of his pop-ups: the moment when you go from lying down on your surfboard to standing up on the wave’s face.
The pure pride and joy he gets from simply standing up on a surfboard is courageous, poignant, and sincere in a refreshingly excited tone that provides a contrast to all the aerial-centered and high-performance based images and articles crowding my Instagram newsfeed most days. Forget about 360 airs and 60-foot faces, Heller just stood up on a 4-foot face, and he couldn’t be happier.
Deciding that surfing isn’t really about surfing has some advantages, especially if you’re forty-eight, a kook, and you chose to take up shortboarding.
This book was my reminder that surfing is about so much more than any one specific thing, a reminder I can never stop getting enough of. This book reminded me about joy, wisdom, adventurousness, and laughing at your own mistakes. This book reminded me that being a kook once in a while isn’t all that bad. I believe we could all benefit from embracing our inner kook a little more often, and reading this book is a great way to start.
Read more about Heller’s books, or purchase Kook for your own bookshelf.