About Those Martial Arts Books…

I’m occasionally asked by a student or friend, “What’s the best book to learn X?” where X is some martial art or skill. There’s a real simple answer.

None of them.

There’s no way to learn a complex martial skill from a book. There’s just too much hidden knowledge, too much subtlety for it to ever boil down perfectly to some words and a series of still images.

That being said, I’ve got dozens of martial arts texts. Here’s a picture of my desk:

The books that currently live on my desk.

The books that currently live on my desk.

That image begs the question, why have them if you can’t learn technique from them? Those books are really good to remind you what you’ve already learned.

It’s really difficult to learn a new form from a book or to master a complex takedown. However, once you’ve seen it from an experienced instructor, once your body knows the motion, the book becomes valuable. Should my hand be on the sleeve or the lapel? Is that a back stance or a tiger stance there? Do I grab over or under my own cane? That’s the time that these books really pay off.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Taekwondo: Complete WTF Forms by Marc Tedeschi – Easily, hands down, the best reference for WTF forms you will ever find. Each form is presented in tables, summary photos, and then detailed photos. The book also presents applications for some portions of forms. My only criticism is that these applications tend toward the interpretation that blocks are actually blocks and have some very questionable explanations for things like scissor block, half-mountain block,etc.
  • Complete Tang Soo Do Vol. 1 by Ho Sik Pak – Not quite as comprehensive at Tedeschi’s book for WTF Taekwondo, this book is a great reference for Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan.
  • Modern Arnis: The Filipino Art of Stick Fighting by Remy Presas – This slim little volume is a great reference on the basics of Arnis. It’s wonderful, particularly for early learning, on angles of attack, disarms, and basic sinawali.
  • 75 Down Blocks: Refining Karate Technique by Rick Clark – Recommended to me by Master Jason Ladd, this is a great book to introduce people to the ideas of bunkai/bunseok. Rick Clark lays out 75 different ways that a low block could be interpreted. Not all are amazing, but seeing that amount of breadth in what is often the first technique taught to new students is fun.

Of course, everyone has their own list of critical texts. Use the comments to share your own.

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