The best martial arts books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about martial arts and why they recommend each book.

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Iron & Silk

By Mark Salzman,

Book cover of Iron & Silk

This classic about a young American teacher’s adventures in post Cultural Revolution China set the standard for “travel memoir”. Salzman’s journey is captivating and unique because it is, at its core, a love story with the country, the culture, the people, and martial arts—the sort of adoration that could only manifest in youth. He gives himself entirely to the experience and, thus, takes the reader along with him. A wonderful book that lingers in the memory for decades.


Who am I?

I’m a Vietnamese-American writer, traveling and living in Asia for the past two decades. I have published a bicycle travel memoir, a Southeast Asian cookbook, a Vietnamese biography, an essay collection about escaping abroad, and a translation of the most famous Vietnamese diary. I am a professional hammock weight, wine taster, foodie, and connoisseur of Asian literature.


I wrote...

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

By Andrew X. Pham,

Book cover of Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

What is my book about?

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey—a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam—made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland. Intertwined with an often humorous travelogue spanning a year of discovery is a memoir of war, escape, and ultimately, family secrets.

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." Following the suicide of his sister, Pham quit his job, sold all of his possessions, and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; on a thousand-mile loop from Narita in South Korea to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds "nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness." In Vietnam, he's taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except, of course, by his relatives, who doubt that as a Vietnamese he has the stamina to complete his journey ("Only Westerners can do it"); and in the United States he's considered anything but American. A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and an eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

By Raúl Sánchez García,

Book cover of The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

The Eastern tradition of "sports" is entirely different from the Western (indeed, many practitioners of martial arts in the East don't regard them as competitive sports at all, but disciplines where one competes, in a sense, with oneself). I wrote a piece on the history of karate for Smithsonian Magazine, since it is making its debut in Tokyo in August, and found this book (despite its dry and academic title) to be a fascinating introduction to the surprising growth of Japanese martial arts around the world.

Who am I?

As a historian, journalist, and travel writer, Tony Perrottet has made a career out of bringing the past to vivid life. Born in Australia, he started writing as a foreign correspondent in South America, where he covered guerrilla wars in Peru, drug running in Colombia, and military rebellions in Argentina. He continues to commute to Athens, Iceland, Tierra del Fuego, and Havana, while contributing to the Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, amongst others. He has written six books on subjects ranging from classical tourism to the Pope's "pornographic bathroom" in the Vatican, and most recently, ¡Cuba Libre!, an anecdotal account of the Cuban Revolution. His travel stories have been selected seven times for the Best American Travel Writing series, and he is a regular guest on the History Channel, where he has spoken about everything from the Crusades to the birth of disco.


I wrote...

The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

By Tony Perrottet,

Book cover of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

What is my book about?

While researching a book on ancient Roman tourists, Pagan Holiday, I discovered that the classical Olympic Games were history's longest-running festival, held without fail, every four years for nearly twelve centuries. It's an astonishing record given that the modern Olympics have been canceled three times due to wars since they were restarted in Athens in 1896, and the 2021 Tokyo Games were delayed a year due to the Covid pandemic. I also realized that the ancient Greek Olympics were chaotic and sprawling events -- the Woodstock of Antiquity -- where 40,000 sports fans crowded in wretched conditions, punished by searing summer heat, plagues of flies, endless dust, and dehydration. But they were also unforgettable spectacles, combining sports with religious rituals, cultural tourism, political grandstanding, and a level of debauchery that impressed Emperor Nero when he competed in the chariot race.

In The Naked Olympics, I set out to recreate what it might really have been like to visit the festival as a competitor, a sports fan, or an official, using firsthand reports and obscure sources, including an actual Handbook for a Sports Coach used by the ancient Greeks. My aim was to peel away the layers of myth that cloud our vision of the classical world to understand the experience itself, including the round-the-clock bacchanal inside the tents of the Olympic Village, the all-male nude workouts under the statue of Eros (all athletes went naked in the Greek world), and history's first corruption scandals involving competitors. 

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

By Bruce Lee,

Book cover of Tao of Jeet Kune Do

At first glance this book would seem to have nothing to do with Vikings at all, and it doesn’t. Regardless, this fascinating book is a classic when it comes to understanding approaches to researching combat in general. It shows how to break the mold of preconceived notions and ideas related to researching combat, a skill crucial for those studying any field of direct and dynamic violence.


Who are we?

In the Viking age, one could not escape destiny, and so it is with William and Reynir, men from two vastly different fields who met by chance and shared a passion for discovery. Their research on Viking combat has led to many groundbreaking discoveries and never before done testing. Their work has been accepted by leading museums, universities, and professional societies, and they regularly share their research findings in lectures, classes, and presentations at these venues. The National Museum of Iceland recently opened a special exhibit that features their research. In many ways, their work has changed our understanding of Vikings and shown a new approach to Viking research.


We wrote...

Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat

By William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson,

Book cover of Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat

What is our book about?

Sometime near the end of the tenth century, a man named Fraði died in Sweden. His kinsmen raised a granite runestone to his memory in Denmark. The carved message appears to tell us that Fraði was “first among all Vikings” and that he was the “terror of men.” Known sources about the Vikings revolve around the constant threat of violence: literary and artistic sources from both inside and outside Viking lands, including poetry, myths, stories, and artwork; law codes; burial practices; weapons. In the book, the authors dig deep into Fraði’s society so that the reader will understand the importance of combat to Viking society, the nature of that combat, and the code of conduct of these “men of terror.

Girl Fights Back

By Jacques Antoine,

Book cover of Girl Fights Back: An Emily Kane Adventure Book 1

This is a book for Japanese martial arts lovers like me. Every fight is described in realistic detail so I can ‘see’ every fighting technique. Emily is a half-Japanese teenager whose American father is ex-military and trying to hide his family from some mysterious threat. Of course, Emily is taught a bunch of special skills in case she ever needs them, such as various martial arts and bushcraft. Unlike other books like this, I find her training feels natural. She learned martial arts at a local dojo and her days in the woods with her dad were ‘camping,’ not obvious paramilitary training, so when she started fighting back, it felt right to me. This isn’t a true urban fantasy novel, but there’s enough intrigue and strange events that it seems imaginary. 


Who am I?

I’ve been interested in Japanese culture, mythology, and martial arts since I was a teenager. My favorite books are those where I become completely submerged, losing myself in the story and forgetting where the main character ends and I begin. Stories that focus on an ordinary person who gets pulled into another world while remaining firmly planted in their current world. Stories where the character has to learn new skills or discover special talents; a connection to the past or to another realm; or becomes part of some mysterious group operating outside of society. When I couldn’t find enough books that fulfilled my hunger for this specific genre, I decided to write some myself!


I wrote...

The Gatekeeper's Son: Book One

By C.R. Fladmark,

Book cover of The Gatekeeper's Son: Book One

What is my book about?

Junya’s grandfather is a billionaire who keeps the secret to his success hidden in a heavily guarded safe. His mother is a martial artist who wields a razor-sharp katana—and seems to read his mind. And a mysterious girl in a Japanese school uniform can knock him over—literally—with just a look. What do they know that he doesn’t? Junya’s life takes a dangerous turn on his sixteenth birthday when someone sets out to destroy not only the family’s business empire—the one that he’s set to inherit—but Junya himself. He’s fighting for his life and doesn’t know who to trust. What has his family been keeping from him? Junya’s journey takes him from the narrow streets of San Francisco to Japan. In a mystical world he’s never imagined, he finds his true destiny.

When Buddhists Attack

By Jeffrey K. Mann,

Book cover of When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts

Geoffrey Mann does a great job of laying out the history of Buddhism and Zen and its links to the martial arts. Thoroughly researched and widely referenced, it’s definitely the place to start, and the hardback edition makes a handsome addition to any martial arts library.


Who am I?

Goran Powell is an award-winning martial arts writer who holds a 5th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. His love affair with the martial arts began as a boy with Judo and he took up full-contact Karate in 1984. In 2002, he completed the grueling 30 Man Fight and documented his experience in his first book, Waking Dragons, before going on to write a string of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction titles. In 2015, he joined the Dogen Sangha Zen group in London and his latest book, Karate on a Cushion, examines the intriguing connection between Zen and martial arts. Goran won Writer of the Year at the prestigious British Martial Arts Awards In 2017.


I wrote...

Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

By Goran Powell,

Book cover of Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

What is my book about?

After thirty years of full-contact karate, it was time for Goran to sit down for a well-earned rest. And discover what sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall could reveal about the martial arts. And life. His journey led to a new dojo, a new sensei, and a Zen master who traced his origins all the way back to the first patriarch of Zen and martial arts, Bodhidharma. 

Soon he was studying beautiful writings that made no sense. And finding sitting on a cushion wasn’t nearly as relaxing as he’d hoped. But slowly, he was getting to grips with an ancient practice of body and mind that was less spiritual, and more real than anything he could have imagined.

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

By Red Pine, Bodhidharma,

Book cover of The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

A succinct insight into the Bodhidharma legend and some of the sutras he may have written or taught. Nothing much about martial arts, but a good insight into the man, and more importantly the thinking behind the study of the Way.


Who am I?

Goran Powell is an award-winning martial arts writer who holds a 5th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. His love affair with the martial arts began as a boy with Judo and he took up full-contact Karate in 1984. In 2002, he completed the grueling 30 Man Fight and documented his experience in his first book, Waking Dragons, before going on to write a string of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction titles. In 2015, he joined the Dogen Sangha Zen group in London and his latest book, Karate on a Cushion, examines the intriguing connection between Zen and martial arts. Goran won Writer of the Year at the prestigious British Martial Arts Awards In 2017.


I wrote...

Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

By Goran Powell,

Book cover of Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

What is my book about?

After thirty years of full-contact karate, it was time for Goran to sit down for a well-earned rest. And discover what sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall could reveal about the martial arts. And life. His journey led to a new dojo, a new sensei, and a Zen master who traced his origins all the way back to the first patriarch of Zen and martial arts, Bodhidharma. 

Soon he was studying beautiful writings that made no sense. And finding sitting on a cushion wasn’t nearly as relaxing as he’d hoped. But slowly, he was getting to grips with an ancient practice of body and mind that was less spiritual, and more real than anything he could have imagined.

Buddhism Plain and Simple

By Steve Hagen,

Book cover of Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware Right Now, Every Day

This was the first book I ever read that changed my life. It came along at a time when I felt I was missing something. I didn’t know a lot about Buddhism at the time, and therefore didn’t recognize that what I was feeling was a universal phenomenon and that the Noble Eightfold Path was a secular template for contentment. I have read many other Buddhist books since then, but none of them have spoken to me like this one did. I have a notebook that contains entire passages of Buddhism Plain and Simple, and regularly refer back to those passages today.


Who am I?

I’m drawn to the intersection of psychology, philosophy and pragmatism — a dynamic that can be found in the books I write, the conversations I enjoy, and the ways I choose to spend my down time. By getting in touch with my personal psychology (influenced by my brain chemistry, temperament and upbringing) and studying various philosophies (from the Stoics to Alain de Botton), I have begun to find my own truth and formulate my own best practices in life. I don’t always nail it — not by a long shot — but that’s why it’s called a practice. There are so many different ways to live a contented life. It can be awfully rewarding to locate your own.


I wrote...

Relax It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids about Religion When You're Not Religious

By Wendy Thomas Russell,

Book cover of Relax It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids about Religion When You're Not Religious

What is my book about?

A rapidly growing demographic cohort in America, non-religious and progressively religious parents are at the forefront of a major and unprecedented cultural shift. Unable to fall back on what they were taught as children, many of these parents are struggling  or simply failing  to address issues of God, religion, and faith with their children in ways that promote honesty, curiosity, kindness, and independence.

The author sifts through hard data  including the results of a survey of 1,000 secular parents  and delivers gentle but straightforward advice to atheists, agnostics, humanists and open-minded believers. With a thoughtful voice infused with humor, Russell seamlessly merges scientific thought, scholarly research and everyday experience with respect for a full range of ways to view the world.


The Book of Five Rings

By Miyamoto Musashi,

Book cover of The Book of Five Rings

A classic of the ages and essential reading for any martial artist, The Book of Five Rings is a guide to self-discipline and learning. But you have to read between the lines, listen to the silences, and practice the way of the warrior yourself in order to get the most from it. The legendary swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi is the blueprint for Jack’s sensei and guardian Masamoto in my Young Samurai book.

Who am I?

I am a black belt martial artist and top ten bestselling children’s author with a life goal of ‘getting kids reading’. As an author, I practise what I term ‘method writing’. For my Young Samurai series, I trained in samurai swordsmanship, karate, ninjutsu, and earned my black belt in Zen Kyu Shin Taijutsu. This ensures my books are not only authentic but have the impact of a flying front kick. Hopefully, my stories will knock you out!


I wrote...

Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior

By Chris Bradford,

Book cover of Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior

What is my book about?

Sword-wielding samurai, deadly ninja, and full-on martial arts action, The Way of the Warrior is an epic adventure story of courage, loyalty, and friendship. Inspired by my own martial arts journey, we follow the young Jack Fletcher as he is shipwrecked on the shores of 16th Century Japan where he learns the way of the warrior with the help of a samurai girl called Akiko in order to battle Dragon Eye, the mysterious assassin who murdered his father!

Over 1.5 million copies sold worldwide, the multi-award-winning Young Samurai is deemed one of Puffin's 70 Best Ever Books, alongside Treasure Island and Robin Hood.

Mastery

By George Leonard,

Book cover of Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Mastery goes hand in hand with getting on top of work. Leonard gave me the long view. He does an excellent job of describing how mastery is better considered a process, a path you travel more so than a line you pass. Viewing one's craft as a series of peaks and plateaus and, more importantly, staying on the path is the work of mastery. 


Who am I?

I love playing music and games, helping others in therapy, being a father and husband, among other things. It’s taken me some time to figure out how to not only stay on top of them all, but to enjoy myself along the way. The answer to doing so is about finding and guiding play in work. Picasso's statement rings true: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Mastery and feelings of success flow when work is imbued with play. As a psychoanalyst and now as a writer, I work with both clients and readers to help them find meaning and mastery in the day-to-day.


I wrote...

Workflow Mastery: Building from the Basics

By Kourosh Dini,

Book cover of Workflow Mastery: Building from the Basics

What is my book about?

The central theory is that mastery and meaningful work develop from guided play. The question is then how do we guide play? Workflow Mastery is a deep dive into what it takes to guide play, find success in our lives, and get to where we want to go. It describes, in both practical and psychological depth, how we can get into what we decide to put in front of ourselves. The book is structured to gradually build from simple to complex concepts, but separated so you can decide where and how to improve your own workflows to whatever degree makes sense to you.

This book is currently only available here.

Batgirls Vol. 1

By Becky Cloonan, Michael Conrad, Jorge Corona (illustrator)

Book cover of Batgirls Vol. 1

I love all of the different Batgirls DC has introduced over the years, and this book brings them together in one delightful adventure. Barbara Gordon is the original Batgirl mentoring her two protégés, the snarky Stephanie Brown and the martial arts master Cassandra Cain. The trio is a mix of different personalities and strengths, but teamwork and sisterhood come first. Cloonan and Conrad craft a rollicking story in this first volume, and Corona’s bombastic artwork is a perfect vehicle for all three of these enjoyable characters.


Who am I?

I’ve been a comic book nerd forever and a comic book historian for the past fifteen years, specializing in the history of female superheroes and writing books about Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Catwoman, and more. A lot of amazing heroines have been featured in adaptations that have introduced them to a larger audience, but there are so many other great characters still waiting to get their chance to shine. I’m excited to share a few of them that I really love with you here, as well as spotlight a diverse collection of creators and characters that deserve a closer look.


I wrote...

Not All Supermen: Sexism, Toxic Masculinity, and the Complex History of Superheroes

By Tim Hanley,

Book cover of Not All Supermen: Sexism, Toxic Masculinity, and the Complex History of Superheroes

What is my book about?

The book is a broad overview of trends in the superhero industry that explores how sexism has been wired into the genre from its earliest days and how that sexism has lingered and led to the rise of toxic masculinity in comics, adaptations, and fandom. It examines how the nostalgia-heavy genre enshrines outdated values of the past, with sexist tropes and attitudes woven into the fabric of its stories, and how catering to a male audience combined with the persistent devaluing of women through omission and objectification to create toxic forms of masculinity.

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