Criteria for Reviewing Books on
Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung, and Other Martial and Movement Arts
I’m undertaking the probably thankless task of reviewing books on Tai Chi Chuan and other martial and movement arts for several reasons, but it has its real genesis in a recent purchase of Tai Chi books. I love to read books on the martial arts and have a fairly substantial collection. But there's always one more to buy. Or two or three. I started collecting such books in the early 1970s, when such titles were rarer than they are today. Now, there's a warehouseful of titles out there. Or two or three. So, which ones to buy with my skimpy Tai Chi book budget? I didn't want to replicate the kinds of books I already had in my fairly large martial arts library, but the descriptions and star ratings didn't really tell me much. I saw books there with five star ratings that I would only give a three to.
Nor did the “reviews” on the Amazon site lend much help, most being little more than blurbs that are sorely lacking in clues regarding the actual contents of the books, the relative quality of the information and instruction they impart, or the quality of the presentation. The answer was that there needed to be a place where a person interested in buying books on these subjects can find relatively in-depth independent reviews that can guide the buyer toward books that will advance and deepen their practice, not simply reiterate what they already know. (Not that that's bad in the case of the Tai Chi Classics!)
So, the next obvious question is, why me? What qualifies me to write these reviews? The obvious answer is that I'm the one sitting here, doing it. But there are some other reasons I came up with later, and I think they're pretty good:
1. I’ve been practicing Tai Chi and chi kung since 1980, and I've dabbled at Praying Mantis, Aikido, and Taekwondo along the way. While I'm a long way from being a master—or even much of a fighter—I do know something about Tai Chi and chi kung, and I’ve read a heck of a lot on them, from books to magazines to handouts from various instructors.
2. From 1985 through 1990, I produced a video documentary series on the development and flowering of the United States National Chinese Martial Arts Competition, the first nationally sanctioned kung fu-only tournament in the United States. The result was a twenty-two-entry series totaling more than twenty-four hours of final video. I've seen a lot of good kung fu up close. And I'll bet I've seen just as many martial arts movies as you, too!
3. I am a professional writer and editor, having made my living at these and other publications occupations my entire adult life. For seventeen years, until I retired, I served as the editor for Rice Magazine, the magazine of Rice University (Houston, Texas), which is always ranked in the top 20 universities in the country, and I won a number of awards for it. I’ve also done editorial work and writing for other periodical and book publishers. During my career, I’ve written hundreds of book and movie reviews, and as a freelancer, I've sporadically had pieces in Tai Chi Magazine, Inside Kung Fu, Yoga Journal, and elsewhere, and I've written three books on the principles of Tai Chi. Combining these factors with #1 and #2 above, I’m fairly well equipped to review books on Tai Chi, chi kung, and other similar stuff.
There is an advantage to reading real reviews instead of relying on Internet blurbs and a star rating system. Unless you know something about the reviewer (blurber?), the review essentially exists without context or continunity. On the other hand, reading reviews by someone whose background you know something about and whose judgment you understand is, I've found, helpful, even if you don't necessarily agree. There used to be a movie reviewer for a newspaper in the city where I lived whose tastes were diametrically opposed to mine. If he hated a movie, I was sure to love it, and vice versa. I checked his reviews avidly.
So I guess I'm the one here. We'll see if it's the right place and hope it's not the wrong time.
It should be noted without saying—though I'll say it anyway to make sure it's noted—that a review of a book is not a critique of the author as a person or his or her knowledge of or skill at Tai Chi, chi kung, or any other martial or movement art discussed here. In general, I’ve found it pretty rare for an unknowledgeable person to write at length with any kind of authority on these subjects. And anyway, a great many—if not most—of the authors of books reviewed here are profoundly expert. What I am reviewing is the book itself: its informational and presentational qualities and, occasionally, other aspects, such as the quality of the writing. I want to help you, the purchaser and reader, know what you're getting for your money and time.
In general, most books on Tai Chi and other martial and movement arts fall into several broad categories. I'm going to refer to Tai Chi in the descriptions below, but feel free to substitute the name of your movement art for "Tai Chi." Maybe I'll eventually get around to books you'll be interested in.
Category I books present a relatively superficial historical and philosophical background to Tai Chi, accompanied by a lengthy photographic exposition of a particular form or set of exercises, sometimes with instructional text of varying detail and quality. This exposition might be accompanied or followed by another series of photos and text describing marital applications of the movments and, sometimes, push hands and sparring. These sorts of books were more prevalent in the early days of martial arts publications in the West (1960–1990), though they still appear and still can serve as introductons to Tai Chi for the curious and beginners or as manuals for people who practice the particular form or exercise depicted in the book. But be aware that you’re not going to get much more than a cursory introduction to Tai Chi in many of them. Though these kinds of books purport to teach you Tai Chi, the reality is that, with some exceptions, it would be difficult to impossible to learn Tai Chi from books such as these. It's hard enough to learn from a person.
Category II books include those that are or principally contain expositions, ruminations, philosophies, histories, and the like. They are, in many ways, the initial chapters of Category I books expanded to full-length. Because of their length, and occasionally targeted content (such as history), the material is presented in greater depth, detail, and generally, accuracy. Often, but not always, these types of books are based on or launched by personal experiences and tend not to deal much with specific forms or exercises, except in an historical context. Nor do they concentrate on specific applications, techiques, or that sort of thing. They are, pretty much, Tai Chi Chuanists talking about a particular style or about Tai Chi in general. Generally, these books are appropriate reads for any level, but, of course, some are more worthwhile spending time with than others.
Category III books are what might also be called "nuts-n-bolts" books. Generally, they do not deal with a specific style of Tai Chi, though some might refer to or play off of a particular style, and others might be highly detailed instruction manuals on particular forms or sets of techniques, but definitely at a greater magnitude of detail compared to instruction series in Category I books. And while they might contain some of the same types of material that would appear in Category II books, such material is only a launching pad for technical explorations into the specifics of how
Tai chi functions both physically and energetically. The prototype of Category III books is the Tai Chi Classics, which should top any list of Tai Chi reading. If you read nothing else on Tai Chi, read the Tai Chi Classics. Ideally, Category III books should serve as manuals or textbooks for progress and principally are for the intermediate and advanced student, though beginners can benefit greatly from them.
Of course, just as with Tai Chi, these categories are not hard and fast. The basic tenets always hold true but, at the same time, they remain flexible and fluid. So, a book on Tai Chi might present a depiction of a particular form, but the presence of that does not automatically relegate it to Category I.
You might notice that I'm mostly reviewing books on Tai Chi, a lot of which are older. Yes. I'm starting out by reviewing my own library, since that makes the most practical sense. Most of the books in it are still available, and even better, I already have them. And I practice Tai Chi, so more than half of my martial arts library consists of books on that. However, I also am including books on other martial and movement arts from my library. As for the age of some of these books, well, Tai chi books are—or should be—perennial. And most of them are still available from Amazon and other outlets. One of my reviews, for example, is of a book published in 1991 but that I purchased new through Amazon in 2016. If you haven't read it, it's new to you. In any case, a Tai Chi book might be old in terms of publication date, but the information it contains might be timeless. As I mentioned earlier, my budget for Tai Chi books is relatively paltry, which is another good reason to review books I already have. But if you appreciate what I'm doing and want me to review your book, Contact Me.
All of the above leaves me, finally, with the real reasons I'm doing this: I love Tai Chi and I love Tai Chi books—even the bad, quirky, outdated, and homemade—and I appreciate the insights they've given me as I've pursued Tai Chi like the elusive butterfly of love. Not to mention that I think I'm going to like writing about them, too.