I spend a fair amount of time reading books that are either directly or indirectly related to jiu jitsu (or the grappling arts more generally). It dawned on me that some readers of the blog might find it helpful if I did some short write ups of books once I've had the chance to read them. In the future, I will include just one or two quick reviews But since I have a backlog, this first post will contain reviews of four books. I will post a few follow-ups soon with reviews for several additional books. Hopefully, you find my thoughts useful or interesting. That said, let's get started:
Rich Roll, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. Three Rivers Press (2012): This is a very inspiring book. Roll has a great story to share about his own life story and his transformation from an out of shape alcoholic in his early 40s into an ultra-fit athlete who crazily managed to complete five Iron-Man length triathlons on five different Hawaiian Islands spread out over seven grueling days. It is relevant to jiu jitsu partly because it's an inspirational story about the redeeming quality of both (a) eating well and getting in shape, and (b) making the experience of flow a more integral part of one's life. While it gets a little tedious when Roll plugs his own products (or his sponsors' products), the book is an easy and enjoyable read.
For someone in his 40s like me, I finished the book more motivated than ever to maintain a healthy (vegetarian) diet and train not only more, but more intelligently. If Roll can accomplish as much as he has at his age (and with his background), perhaps if I rededicate my own life to health and fitness as he did, I can achieve my own dream of traveling down to Brazil and becoming a world champion in the Masters (i.e., old fart) division. I have roughly one year to get myself in position to make a run at the title (as lofty as the goal may be). Roll's book helped nudge me into taking my dreams (however lofty or unrealistic they may seem to others) more seriously. As such, I highly recommend the book--which can be picked up on the cheap in paperback.
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. Free Press (2007). Like Roll, Waitzkin has an amazing life story. As a prodigy in chess from the age of six, the story of his childhood was immortalized in the very entertaining movie Searching for Bobby Fischer (which is based on a novel of the same name by Waitzkin's father). The Art of Learning (TAL) is about Waitzkin's approach not just to chess, but to learning more generally--an approach that enabled him to go on as an adult to become a national and world champion in Tai Chi Chaun. His descriptions of time spent mastering the martial arts aspect of Tai Chai and travelling around the country and world to compete are very fascinating. It's no wonder Waitzkin has been successful. He has a knack for learning (see here for more details). But perhaps what makes Waitzkin a most intriguing figure for me is the fact that he is a black belt in jiu jitsu under the legendary Marcelo Garcia (see here and here for a video and an interview, respectively). Waitzkin also partnered with Garcia to design his online training cite MGinAction--which Waitzkin modeled after the software he designed for training people how to play chess. In short, Waitzkin has spent a lot of time learning and mastering three different difficult yet related activities ranging from chess to jiu jitsu--which is often called "human chess."
Unfortunately, TAL is a book that predates Waitzkin's foray into jiu jitsu, but it is nevertheless a valuable guide for how to approach learning in a more cerebral manner. One aspect of TAL that ties it to Roll's Finding Ultra is Waitzkin's focus on the importance of flow. Waitzkin is ultimately interested in exploring performance psychology and his book delivers the goods (especially for laypeople). At one point, he describes his early experiences learning Tai Chi in the following way: "Working with other beginners, I could quickly find and exploit the tension in their bodies and at time I was able to stay completely relaxed while their attacks slipped by me. While I learned with open pores--no ego in the way--it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits." To me, this succinctly captures what should be one of the goals when we're rolling--namely, relaxing and approaching training with an "unfettered mind." In short, Waitzkin tries to lay out what he takes to be the steps needed to be on the "road to mastery" whether you're training in chess or jiu jitsu. As such, I highly recommend the book.
E. Hitchcock Jr. and R.F, Nelligan, Wrestling: Catch-As-Catch-Can Style, Physical Culture Books (2012). I am a bit of nerd when it comes to collecting and reading old grappling books. I find them both historically interesting and illuminating. And while I will review some books in the near future that I really enjoyed, this is not a book that I would recommend. Ultimately, I have no one but myself to blame I suppose. Had I paid closer attention when I ordered the book, I would have noticed that I was spending $11.95 for a 46 page book (which is not a good value). This is the reprint of a book that was originally published in 1912. But unlike several other reprints I have purchased, this one is very light on content and the pictures are piss-poor quality (and so small that they're hard to make out). That's not surprising given that the book is roughly 4 inches by 7 inches. When it arrived in the mail, I laughed when I saw how little was contained within its pages. All told, the book only covers 65 techniques--each with a single grainy picture and no more than a few sentences of details. In short (no pun intended), you should avoid this book. There are several reprints of other C-A-C-C books from the same period that are far superior to this one. So, save your money and your time!
H. Irving Hancock and Katsukuma Higashi, The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu [Judo], Dover Publications (2005). Like the previous book I just reviewed, this, too, is a reprint of a much earlier edition that was originally published in 1905. But that is where the comparisons end. Unlike the C-A-C-C book, this book is rich with useful details and photographs. It begins with information concerning the rules governing jiu-jitsu competitions back in the early 20th century as well as a chapter on how to study the martial art. The authors then proceed to catalog the entire corpus of Kano's system-from throws to ground work and everything in between! There are even sections at the end on "fatal blows" as well as directions for the "restoration of life." All told, the book contains details for 505 "tricks"--each with at least one clear and crisp picture as well as several fine-grained details. The book clocks in at 526 pages. It's amazing to see how much of the jiu-jitsu "invented" by the Gracies was already part of Kano's system in the early 1900s. As such, I think this is an interesting and important book that is well worth the money. I highly recommend the book based just on its historical value alone. It provides the reader with a detailed glimpse into the state of the art of judo and jiu-jitsu at the turn of the 20th century. As such, it is well worth a look by students of the gentle art.
Well, that's it for now. Like I said before, I have several more books to review in the coming weeks. For now, I hope you found these four reviews useful. If you have any books that you highly recommend, please post your suggestions in the comments section. I am always looking for interesting things to read that are directly or indirectly related to the grappling arts!