Book Learning in the Martial Arts

Does anyone remember the Trouble with Tribbles, where Captain Kirk chides Scotty for not relaxing and reading technical journals? Scotty’s response being that he is relaxing. These days, I spend a lot of time with martial arts books, sometimes because Maya pulls them from the shelves and spreads them all over the floor. In this period of my life where small children take priority of practice, trying to keep a toe in the pond can be a struggle. I hate every squat and sprint-interval, but I keep telling myself, I need to keep in some sort of shape for my return. At the same time, there are the books.

I have a lot of them. I also have a pretty decent collection of videos. The question is always how valuable are they? If your knee-jerk reaction is “they aren’t worth anything,” then I would suggest you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this. If you’re reaction is that you can learn everything from them, well, that’s just plain crazy talk. The answer, in my experience, is more nuanced and in the middle. You can’t learn soup-to-nuts from books, but at the same time, you can gain a lot of solid details and perspective from books.

On a technical level, if you’re in a martial art that still uses the home language (such as aikido does), then virtually all the terminology is in Japanese. From the stance (hanmi) to the attacks such as yokomen-uchi (side-face strike) to the actual techniques like irimi-nage (entering throw), you’ll learn them faster if they are written down with clear illustrations to help you make the connections. Sitting in class, you have a lot more important things to remember than trying to memorize the name of each technique. In a good book, it would be surprising if the series of photos you do have in a book are the first and only set the demonstrator did. Meaning they probably did a number, maybe dozens, of attempts before getting the pictures right–something that can be done quickly and cheaply now but not, say, a hundred years ago. Photos are taken usually at full- or close-to-full-speed. The photos are chosen to show correct stance, positioning, and focus. In other words, the photos are working, full-speed models of how you should look when doing a technique properly. The same goes with videos. Granted, to get all the information out of a series of photos or a video clip requires practice (both in class and learning to read these images), an experienced eye, and patience. You’ll study them over and over, much like athletes studying film.

Books also convey experiences of people who went before you. Martial arts is a cumulative experience, not just from you own perspective, but generation after generation makes subtle and meaningful adaptations. When you start a martial art, you’re not reinventing the wheel. You’re being given a set of wheels and are asked to make a car. Books can help you avoid the mistakes others have made in the past. The hardest part about martial arts books, though, is that they require a lot of effort on your part. You need to think about them, think about what they are saying, what the mean.

This all being said, there is a lot of crap out there too. When I was a kid starting judo in the early 80’s, there weren’t a lot of books. There were cheap publishers that put out whole batches of basic primers and expensive publishers that put out more expensive versions. Now, there are ebooks, print-on-demand books, and a good number of newer publishers, some good and some not-so-good. It’s always good to talk to people to get recommendations, if you’re new to this, but also to see if anyone has read one you’re interested in to see what they think. The other downside to books and videos is that they go out of print, and often really good ones simply disappear. The final downside is that they are expensive. You can spend a small fortune building a personal library and one day discover half of it is useless. Still, in spite of these shortcomings, there are a lot of really good books written by a lot of excellent teachers. You can only benefit your training by getting a couple of them.

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