Martial Arts Books You Need to Read — and Own

There’s no better way to spend the cash you received for Christmas!


cover of The Book of Five RingsMiyamoto Musashi's book offers advice for life.

The Book of Five Rings

The version of this classic by Miyamoto Musashi that I own (from Bantam Books) is subtitled The Real Art of Japanese Management. I mention it first not because it’s the best thing on earth but because I just found myself digging through it yet again to find quotes on the short sword. And I became reacquainted with the wealth of wisdom it offers.

Book of Five Rings is not just for those who love Japanese swords and sword arts. Miyamoto Musashi’s wisdom applies to everyone who’s on the martial path.

cover of Shotokan's Secret bookThis book is the result of years of research by Bruce D. Clayton.

Shotokan’s Secret

The updated version of The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins is called the expanded edition. This book is one of my treasures because of its depth of research. I met the author Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D., when he visited the Black Belt offices to pitch the proposal for the project. I loved it then, and I love it now. You will, too.

Trouble is, Shotokan’s Secret is out of print at the moment. You might be able to find it used on eBay or Amazon, though. (My copy isn’t for sale.)

cover of Karate-Do: My Way of LifeGichin Funakoshi is renowned as the founder of shotokan.

Karate-Do: My Way of Life

Written by Gichin Funakoshi, founder of shotokan karate, this is about history, philosophy and personal experience. That makes it a book you can sit down with and enjoy, as opposed to one you use when you need to look something up.

What makes my edition special to me: I bought it at the Tokyo airport for 750 yen way back in 1986. My first read followed immediately while I was bumming around Japan doing martial arts research.

cover of Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do bookBruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do is a timeless bestseller.

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

I recommend everyone buy the paper version of this timeless classic from Bruce Lee. That way, you can make notes in the margins — and make notes you will. What’s even more fun is reviewing the notes you made decades ago and thinking, Wow! I totally misunderstood that concept. Now I know what Bruce Lee meant.Order here.

I also recommend getting the e-book edition of Tao of Jeet Kune Do. I have it on my iPad, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to it to find, for example, every reference Bruce Lee made to “side kick.” Order here.

cover of Stay in the Fight bookEssential advice for martial artists as they age.

Stay in the Fight

If you don’t think you need this book now, wait a few years. Chances are you will. What am I talking about? Refer to its subtitle: A Martial Artist’s Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Injury.

As with Shotokan’s Secret, I was in the Black Belt offices when co-author Danny Dring showed up for the photo shoot. He knows his stuff. Order here.

cover of Kodo: Ancient Ways bookThe late Kensho Furuya wrote this philosophical work.

Kodo: Ancient Ways

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I was around when author Kensho Furuya would regularly visit Black Belt prior to the publication of this book. An aikido practitioner and a devout Buddhist, he passed away in 2007. The title is out of print, but you might be able to get it used on eBay or Amazon.

Kodo is all about finding meaning in your martial arts practice and using it to make your life better and more productive. It presents Kensho Furuya’s interpretation of what we all strive for in the dojo.


cover of The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu bookThis grappling text dates from 1905.

The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo)

This book was printed in 1961, but it stipulates that it is “an unaltered republication of the work originally published … in 1905.” It’s fun to study the techniques on its pages to see where the judo and BJJ moves we take for granted actually originated.

One unfortunate note: The book says that two sections from the original text — on “serious and fatal blows and katsu, or the restoration of life” — were omitted. I, for one, would like to see those sections for purely scholarly reasons, of course. It's worth looking for on sites that sell used books.

past covers of Black Belt magazineBlack Belt covers all facets of the martial arts as practiced around the world.

Black Belt Magazine Subscription

OK, it’s not a book, but it is a source of reading material that’s second to none for martial artists. By subscribing, you’ll ensure that your knowledge of the martial arts world stays current and you’ll be supporting the company that provides all the free posts you read on this site. Subscribe here.

About the author: A martial artist since 1980, Robert W. Young spent many years in Asia before becoming Black Belt’s editor-in-chief.

BONUS 1

Kelly McCann blocks a knife strike with his forearms.Kelly McCann was Black Belt’s 2008 Self-Defense Instructor of the Year.

Kelly McCann’s Combatives Self-Defense Course

I’ll say it again: “OK, it’s not a book, but …” this streaming-video course is an unrivaled source of pure self-defense goodness. It’s not about martial arts per se; it’s about combatives, the art of surviving. I was there for the filming, and I know there’s nothing better when it comes to prevailing in personal combat. Order here.

Kelly McCann assumes a defensive posture with a stick.Combatives expert Kelly McCann

Also from Black Belt’s 2008 Self-Defense Instructor of the Year is Kelly McCann Combatives 2: Stick & Ground Combat. It’s a logical follow-up to the first course, and one that you need to watch. Order here.

BONUS 2

cover of the book ShogunShogun is a rousing tale of a Westerner who finds himself living among the samurai.

Shogun, by James Clavell

I read this novel in the mid-1980s when I was backpacking around Asia to experience the martial arts in the land of their birth. In those circumstances, when 20-hour train rides through the Chinese countryside were the norm, having a 1,200-page paperback like this was the only thing that saved my sanity.

The fact that it’s all about the samurai made it a real page-turner for the young martial artist that I was. Every now and then, I find myself rereading it — when I need to rekindle my passion.

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