Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century.
By Robert W. Smith.
Published by Via Media Publishing Co., 1999.
US$39.95. ISBN: 1-893765-008.
6" x 9" vii, 390 p. hardcover.
Over 300 illustrations, bibliography, and index.
I had to wrestle our preview copy of Martial Musings away from Meik in order to finish up this review. His comment, "But it's just too damned interesting."
Settle into your favorite rocking chair and get ready to listen to one of the "grand old men" of martial arts entertain and inform. Reading Martial Musings is much like listening to your granddad, sitting on the porch at sunset, weave tales of the olden days. Absolutely absorbing, opinionated, and spellbinding.
Robert W. Smith: Marine, CIA, judoka, taijiquan exponent, author of numerous books on Chinese arts and co-author with Donn F. Draeger of Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts; he's been just about everywhere, seen and done just about everything, and he shares his reflections on his experiences with us in his book. Martial Musings is essentially a series of essays in more or less chronological order, coupled with beautifully reproduced sepia-toned photographs. This format suits the subject matter, which ranges from "Boxing" and "Judo" to "The Bogus: Hollywood" and "Nothing Could Be Finer: Down to Carolina." In between, Smith reminisces on the characters he has known, like E.J. Harrison (he recounts an absolutely hilarious tale of Harrison's first encounter with New Year's mochi in Japan), Donn Draeger (excerpted here), the real "John Gilbey," Zheng Manqing, Ben Lo and others.
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the international spread of Eastern martial arts, and for serious students of judo, taiji, bagua, and xingyi (that covers pretty much all of us, I'd say). It'll make you howl with laughter, and provide plenty of food for thought. There are just a few (entirely overlookable) shortcomings to beware. Smith is primarily an essayist; he interjects frequent literary quotes. This is charming on occasion, but gets to feeling a bit overdone in a book-length work. Consider doing your reading in snippets to compensate. Smith makes no bones about his opinions and biases and this is commendable. Just don't forget that we all tell our own life stories from our unique point of view--this work is autobiography and not intended to be a scholarly treatise on any of the people or topics. Some of Smith's accounts have other sides to them. Finally, I must complain about the index--and yes, I do know how difficult they are to do properly. I also know (Masters of Library Science) how extremely important it is to get the index right. Although the need to provide a glossary can complicate matters (and again, I've faced this same decision), when that glossary (or in this case, two, Japanese and Chinese) also serves as an index, it should be alphabetized together with that index. You may need to look in three different lists to find what you are looking for. My advice to the publisher is to simplify and either keep the definitions in a separate glossary list or combine the definitions into the index.
The short version of this review is: "Don't miss this book."