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I surf, therefore I am - 'Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning'

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Some of the best works of pop philosophy are built around finding the connections between big thought systems and everyday tasks. Perhaps the most famous of these works blending the metaphysical and the mundane is Robert Pirsig’s 1974 bestseller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” though there are plenty of other examples out there.

But until now, none of them asked you to hang 10.

Aaron James – best known for his brilliant 2012 book “A—holes: A Theory” – is back with another work that invites the reader to think deeply with both intent and whimsy. “Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning” (Doubleday, $27.95) is a thought-provoking and clever deep dive into the connections between the surfer’s outlook and the complex philosophical leanings of some of our greatest thinkers.

Sounds weird, right? And it definitely is. It’s also incredibly intelligent and compelling, doing a remarkable job of rendering complicated ideas easily comprehensible by way of a context of surfing attitude and general brah-isms.

James tells the reader right off the bat – this is not your everyday philosophical tract. He takes a good-natured paddle through some large concepts, constantly seeking the tasty waves that will allow his points to glide freely and easily across the surface. He even goes so far as to let you know that you don’t even have to read the thing in order if you don’t want to; skip from chapter to chapter as the spirit moves you, even as the surfer wanders from beach to beach in his constant quest for a great ride.

In essence, “Surfing with Sartre” is an effort by James to communicate across history with Jean-Paul Sartre himself. As he puts it, if he were to have the opportunity to sit down in a French café with that brilliant existentialist philosopher, this book is what he would want to say.

It’s not all about Sartre, though. While that framework of existential ideas certainly features prominently, James is unafraid to address other thinkers and other thought systems. Notions of epistemology and neurochemistry, ethics and religion – he shoots the curl on every one, tying it all to the mindset and techniques of the surfer. The mindful flow of a man and his board – that’s what James uses to tie it all together, even as he offers up connections to the works of thought giants like Kant, Wittgenstein and Aristotle.

The surfer-philosophy dichotomy might seem like an odd one – especially when you’re dealing with someone as academically accomplished as James. But in one way, that’s kind of his point; all manner of people are surfers. The pop culture archetype of the surfer as dude-speaking layabout might be ubiquitous, but it isn’t accurate. Most surfers are like James – gainfully employed contributing members of society who just so happen to be enamored of the flashes of surfboard satori they experience when the pieces all fall into place.

“Surfing with Sartre” is a heady book, but at no point does it venture into the realm of being over one’s head. It’s not an easy read, necessarily – you definitely have to invest your attention in order to really connect with the ideas being put forth – but it certainly isn’t saddled with the density you might expect from a book exploring such challenging concepts.

So if you’ve ever wondered how to connect the rich tapestry of philosophical constructs with the blissed-out joy of riding the tube of a perfect wave, then this book is for you. In “Surfing with Sartre,” Aaron James has combined his seemingly disparate passions into something provocative and pure.

Aaron James is no Barney. He’s no hodad. He’s not a kook or a jake or a Stu. He’s a gnarly dude whose book is totally tubular. 


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