Book Review: Martial Arts Encyclopedia (previously published under the titles of Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People and The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers)
By Matthew R. Hemenez
Imagine -- you might have to close your eyes because what I am about to describe will be difficult to imagine—imagine that you have decided to write a 400+ page reference book on oriental martial arts. Now imagine that you cannot use the internet for any research;
imagine that any phone calls you make to interview people have to be made from a phone that is permanently connected to a wall, you have no computer, and there are only a handful of published works to which you can refer. Unimaginable, right? Not for author and International Hall of Fame inductee Master Emil Farkas, because that’s exactly what he did in the years leading up to the publishing of Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People in 1983 (henceforth I will refer to it under its new title of Martial Arts Encyclopedia) Inspired by his observation that nearly all martial arts books at that time were “How To” books, conducting years of exhaustive research and organizing his notes on approximately 25,000 index cards, he published this first of its kind complete martial arts reference book.
Today, after nearly 40-years in print, it is still completely relevant. It is a book that every martial artist should own. I’ve read many similar books, and Martial Arts Encyclopedia is the most reader-friendly, referenceable, credible and comprehensive martial arts treatise of them all. Let’s talk about why.
Emil Farkas—8th degree black belt in shotokan karate-- earned his first black belt in 1963. Over time he made a name for himself in Hollywood starting as bodyguard for Phil Spector, soon after being sought by the hollywood community to instruct actors in fight choreography. His Beverly Hills Karate Academy opened in 1970 and is still running today, making it the longest running same address martial arts school in Los Angeles ( http://beverlyhillskarateacademy.com/). But he is also an academic. His degree in anthropology and geography prompted him to tie his intellect to his broad and deep martial arts background. The fact that he is a talented writer makes the book that much more valuable. Which brings me to my next point.
One of the true joys of this book is how easy it is to read, a unique attribute for reference books. So much so that it becomes very engaging. Reading it can be the equivalent of web-surfing. You know those times when you Google one topic that leads you to another topic and then another and then an hour later you realize it’s time to get back to work? Same here. Each entry includes bolded typeface to denote a reference within the book. For the knowledge hungry, its virtually impossible to see the bold entry and not then seek it out via the index. In one personal example, I went to the entry on goju ryu; this section referenced Meitoku Yagi (a new name to me), so I went to his biography which bolded sanchin; that took me to sanchin kata which newly informed me that sanchin has an association with shotokan, and so it continued. 45-minutes later I felt like, well, like I had been web-surfing on paper, but without the regret of wasted time felt after actual web-surfing. Wonderful. This is testimony to his writing talent but also to how comprehensive is Martial Arts Encyclopedia.
I don’t know everything about martial arts, but after 30+ years of my own study, I would say I know a lot. That said, I have not been able to find anything in this book that is missing. Included is a chronology of martial arts starting at 720 AD, across Asia, Europe, USA and “other.” 59 styles of kung fu are referenced. The martial arts weapons section alone could be its own book. There are 287 weapons detailed alphabetically. Try and find a single annotated list like that on the web. (I mean this both rhetorically and literally. If you can find such a list on the web, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org) I actually don’t think it exists. Even Wikipedia, our 2d millennium lazy button to “research” wasn’t even close. Nor was blackbeltwiki.
To be clear, this is not just a large glossary or extravagant martial arts dictionary (although he’s done that too.
The Overlook Martial Arts Dictionary is another of Farkas’ invaluable reference works). Each entry is broad-ranging, with the depth being appropriate for where the entry lands on the well-known to esoteric continuum. There is much more written about Masutatsu Oyama (legendary karate strongman and founder of kyokushinkai), for instance, than about So Neichu (student of goju ryu’s Chojin Miyagi and one of Oyama’s early instructors). No matter the case, every entry is informative and thought provoking.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Master Farkas and I asked him how he was able to produce such a comprehensive work without the luxury of technology or a vast library of other reference material (remember my earlier mention that at the time most all martial arts books were instructional books teaching martial arts). Over months he combed through the limited written documentation that was available. Travel, 100’s of phone calls and personal interviews with experts at the time. They in turn directed him to others, who shared their notes with him. By doing this he was able to gather new information and validate previously obtained information. Each entry was written up on an index cards; he estimates that he had nearly 25,000 index cards by the time he was finished.
By way of conclusion, when I was a Marine officer I started a discipline that remains with me to this day in my business career. I have with me always something I call a BOAK (Book of All Knowledge, say boh-k). It is a ready reference for all that is pertinent to my job at the time. Martial Arts Encyclopedia is my MABOAK (Martial Arts Book of All Knowledge, say Mah-boh-k). I recommend it be yours too.
Martial Arts Encyclopedia is an essential book for any martial artists. I sincerely believe that it is better than the internet. Or, at least the first reference before turning to the internet. Well written, fully illustrated, unmatched comprehensiveness, and I could go on. Instead, I will end here by encouraging you to get a copy today and assert your own opinion on how this book enlightens your martial arts experience.
Available at https://www.amazon.com/Martial-Arts-Encyclopedia-John-Corcoran/dp/1478351780/ref=sr_1_13?dchild=1&keywords=emil+farkas&qid=1587238821&sr=8-13
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