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Tag: book review

Gentleman's Guide to Duelling

This book is a modern edition of the 1595 work of Honour and Honourable Quarrels, a guide to the ethics of duelling, by the famous Elizabethan fencing master, Vincentio Saviolo. Let’s cut to the chase. If you are interested in the history of violence, duelling, or moral philosophy, buy this book.

Jared Kirby, the editor, has added thirty pages or so of useful and interesting front-matter, including a detailed argument for the likely location of Saviolo’s school in London, some background on the import of Italian fencing into England in the late 16th century, and as much biographical detail about Saviolo as scholarship has yet uncovered. Kirby also gives all the contemporary references to Saviolo, with complete quotations, in the appendices. To give a flavour of the level of Kirby’s commitment to accuracy: on page seven there is what is now my favourite footnote of any book: “There are no author, editor or publisher/printer details for Alfabetto Citta. The only way to get access is to go to the state archives of Padua and talk to the curator.”

Saviolo’s book is a comprehensive expression of his views on the duel, a critically important issue for Elizabethan gentlemen (and indeed, gentlemen of any era). It comprises eight chapters in about 140 pages, and covers everything from the initial insult, giving the lie, the issue as it regards different ranks in society (lords, knights etc.), choices of weapons, etc. And it concludes with the fantastic “The Nobility of Women” in which he robustly asserts that women are in all respects (culture, intellect, nobility etc.) the equals of men. A must-read for any gender-studies course!

I was initially horrified to read that Kirby intended to modernise the language of the original, and I completely disagree with his assertion that “The natural ability to read and understand sixteenth-century English is a rare gift” (p. xvii): being able to read any language is not a natural ability, or a gift, it’s a learned skill like any other. But his modernisation has been done with a gentle touch, such that reading it I scarcely noticed the changes, and they may save readers lacking the skill referred to earlier the bother of looking up some words or puzzling over some obscure locutions.

There are some interesting additions to the book. Kirby has inserted 16 illustrations, mostly 19th-century drawings, which at times add useful insight, but occasionally come across as complete non-sequiturs. Nothing that detracts from the text, I just wonder at the thinking behind their inclusion (and the lack of source citations in some cases).

In conclusion then, some odd editorial decisions aside, Saviolo’s book is vital reading for anyone interested in the history of the duel and the duelling code, and Kirby’s additional material adds depth of interest. So, as I said above, buy this book!

Disclosure: Jared Kirby and I have been friends for twenty years now, and have fenced together many times, stayed in each others’ homes, etc. In short, friends enough that if I didn’t like his book I’d say so to his face!

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The standard for selection for this list is simple: how much time have I spent thinking about, talking about, and recommending a particular book? These are my top three on that list for 2013, and so I share them with you. I am not including any sword-related books, none of the titles are in directly related to martial arts at all. Not because there weren’t any good ones, just that none of the ones I read last year for the first time changed my thinking the way these did. (See here for a list of seven great martial arts books, and here for five essential non martial arts books every martial artist should read.)

Disclaimer: I don't get paid a thing for any sales of these books, only for my own. So these recommendations are entirely without agenda.

Quiet, by Susan Cain

This is one of the few books I have read in the last ten years that taught me something I didn’t know about myself. Turns out, I’m an introvert. Which means I find too much stimulation exhausting, and have to recharge with quiet time alone. Reading this book, all sorts of things about how I organise my time, especially in class or when travelling for seminars, came into focus and made sense. I love socialising: but it is a net drain on my energy, and so must be compensated for. Teaching, especially new (to me) students, is especially tiring, and so I need to schedule extra down-time afterwards.

This book is a survival guide for introverts, and an explanation for all you extroverts out there to help you understand the introverts in your life. It’s not that we don’t like you, we just need a rest every now and then!

Debt: the first 5000 years, by David Graeber

This book is simply an essential read for anyone who wants to understand where our current economic system came from, and how debt has shaped our culture. We cannot do without debt: from our first breath we incur debts of one sort or another. Right out of the gate, David Graeber, one of the founders of Occupy Wall Street, demolishes what in hindsight is the obviously wrong idea that in early human cultures we bartered for everything. Not true: we bartered with people we didn’t know, and simply kept a record of who owed what to whom within the tribe.

This astonishing book covers the idea of debt from anthropology to modern economics, and will change the way you think about human relations altogether. It is  way too big to summarise meaningfully here, so here is a proper review, in the FT Magazine.

Bit Literacy, by Mark Hurst

I met the author of this book at my sister’s wedding in August, and as he had a book coming out a few months later (Customers Included), I promised to buy it. I liked it enough to immediately look up his other works, and found this. I got the hardback, but you can download the Kindle for free.

I’m not hugely interested in any technology invented after about 1800, but for better or worse am obliged to use a computer, and interact with email and other modern “conveniences”. This book is simply a survival guide to not drowning in all the crap. Following this guide, I a) completed stuff I was supposed to have got done up to 6 months before but hadn’t; b) got my email inbox down from about 7000 messages to 0 (that’s not a typo); and c) created a workflow that makes me much more productive with much less effort.

I truly can’t be bothered with “productivity” products. Mostly, they just add shit to the overflowing todo list in my head. And a human being should not be primarily valued by anyone, least of all themselves, by their “productivity”. We are not dairy cattle. But coupled with Mark’s amazingly useful GoodToDo todo list app, this book has, at virtually no cost, streamlined my working life enormously.

As with any book that relates to modern technology, it is already out of date in some of its specifics (at least one of his recommended software solutions is no longer available). But the method this book explains is not tied to any specific software. This is the survival guide to the internet age. And, you can read it for free!

If you like the books I recommend, you might also like the books I write, so feel free to buy those too!


The works of Dave Lowry should need no introduction to readers of this blog, who, I assume, have at least a passing interest in the martial arts. Mr Lowry has been training since the late sixties and writing about it since the early eighties. His latest book, The Essence of Budo: A Practitioner's Guide to Understanding the Japanese Martial Ways, ought to be bought and read by anyone who thinks of their art as martial, regardless of its origin.

The book is in three parts: Refining Training, Contemplating Tradition, and Reflecting on the Way. Each is comprised of a series of related articles; at times it feels like a book of a blog rather than a more conventional monograph, but this does not detract from the overall, underlying message: traditional martial arts are way too valuable to be treated superficially: give them your life, they deserve no less. Amen, brother. Yet at the same time he states outright that family, work and studies should come before training. Amen again.

I could fill this blog to the brim with useful and provocative quotes: Lowry has the authority and argument to get away with a whole lot of long overdue home truths. He is at times clearly annoyed by folk who he feels don’t train properly or understand their art as they should, which can make his tone a bit grating at times (unusually for this author, who is capable of sublime prose), but in his defence he is sorely provoked. How many martial arts authors can open a chapter with a line like “You do not have enough stamina”? Or with stating bluntly that karate is not a martial art?

Go, read this, you are guaranteed to learn something.


I've been reading again, this time Tom Hodgkinson's Brave Old World, which is a charming book all about living well, in defiance of corporate greed and the ghastly Puritan work ethic. I'm not hugely interested in gardening or rearing my own chickens and pigs, but even so the book was well worth the time, The first paragraph says it all:

The most important but generally the most neglected of the arts of everyday living are simply these: philosophy, husbandry and merriment. Philosophy is the search for truth and the study of how to live well. Husbandry is the art of providing for oneself and one's family, and merriment is the important skill of enjoying yourself: feasting, dancing, joking and singing.

It is especially interesting as he takes as his authorities mostly long-dead authors such as Virgil, Horace, Thomas Tusser, and many more. In a sense he is recreating the lost arts of husbandry and revelry according to the historical sources, which bears an obvious relationship to our own recreation of the lost arts of the sword.

What I found most enchanting about this book was the author's absolute insistence on quality over quantity, right over convenient, and his candid admission that he routinely falls short of his own ideals, as do we all.

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