12 January 2013

Book Review - Borrowing the Master's Bicycle (Mark Johnson)

Short Review: Johnson's follow-up to Jiu Jitsu on the Brain is less focused on immediate applicability to training, but is nevertheless an interesting and entertaining read. The central theme is one which Johnson has been developing on his blog for a good while now: understanding life through jiu jitsu. In the 1970s, Robert Pirsig famously used motorcycle maintenance to explore broader concepts, such as the nature of society's relationship with technology. Johnson does something comparable, but through jiu jitsu, trying to develop what he calls 'Jiu-Zen'. Available to buy for your Kindle here for $5.17 (or in the UK, here, for £3.20).

Full Review: This is the second book from Mark Johnson, following Jiu Jitsu on the Brain (which I reviewed earlier this year). Since then, Johnson has received his black belt from Pedro Sauer, which automatically means this book should garner more attention. Fellow black belt author Kid Peligro has written a foreword, which again lends considerable credibility, given Peligro is easily the most prolific author of respected BJJ books (such as The Gracie Way and BJJ: Theory & Technique). Peligro doesn't say anything especially noteworthy in his foreword, but then forewords are often just there to lend legitimacy rather than deep insight. Peligro's book The Gracie Way does the same thing, where the foreword is written by Royce Gracie.

As with Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, this new release is not a typical instructional volume. Instead, it is a collection of Johnson's thoughts on BJJ. In Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, there was a cohesive structure that meant it can function as an instructional of sorts, geared towards beginners or people still just thinking about starting BJJ. Hence why I would be happy to recommend that first book as the only BJJ instructional volume currently available which is completely 'safe' for beginners (as there is no danger of them being overwhelmed with technique).

Borrowing the Master's Bicycle is different, though there are still useful bits of advice (e.g., set yourself small goals, learn to breathe properly, cultivate an attitude of constant learning, etc). With each chapter, Johnson takes the opportunity to muse about potential broader meanings in jiu jitsu, generally unconnected to the previous chapters. Still, there is an overarching theme, which Johnson has mentioned numerous times on his blog: jiu jitsu as a vehicle for understanding the universe. Indeed, the pdf version he sent me for review was entitled Jiu Jitsu and the Universe.

Like Jiu Jitsu on the Brain, there are a few slips which can probably be blamed on the spellchecker, like 'affective' instead of 'effective' or 'preformed' instead of 'performed', among others. A few full-stops have also gone astray, then there are occasional things like 'to' instead of 'too' (though I am sure the spellchecker is also to blame in that instance rather than Johnson's grammar, given that he is a high school English teacher). That's to be expected with a self-published book and the mistakes are quite minor.

If Jiu Jitsu on the Brain was a Hagakure for BJJ, the comparison that springs to mind for Borrowing the Master's Bicycle is, appropriately, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Johnson's book doesn't have the narrative flow of Pirsig's work, but there is some of that same sense of reaching an understanding of universal principles through a focus on the specific. For Pirsig, it was getting his hands dirty working on his motorcycle on a long journey across the US. For Johnson, it is perfecting his jiu jitsu over the course of a lifetime.

Like Pirsig, Johnson peppers the text with anecdotes, intended to elucidate a philosophical point. For example, in one chapter Johnson discusses how BJJ has helped him become calm, to the extent that he now barely even argues. To do so, Johnson draws a contrast between two evocatively described episodes from his past: his aggressive response to a theft back in his college football days, compared to his polite withdrawal from a potentially volatile situation after he had begun training in jitsu.

The only other book I've read in BJJ that is in at all the same field, aside from Johnson's own previous work, is Carlos Machado's Putting the Pieces Together, which I recently reviewed for Jiu Jitsu Style Magazine. Machado's volume would fall firmly into the self-help category, consisting of a series of inspirational quotes. Though I wouldn't put Johnson's book in that same category, there is an element of this in Borrowing the Master's Bicycle, although Johnson accomplishes his philosophical aims through more considered and expansive parables.

It is difficult to discuss spiritual concepts without coming across as pompous, especially in the blogosphere from which Johnson's book grew. Even the word 'spiritual' has developed connotations of hokey New Age posturing. However, Borrowing the Master's Bicycle does a decent job of avoiding that tone. Johnson's fondness for throwing in references to pop culture is another reason he doesn't float off into clouds of incense. Darth Vader, Yoda and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin all make appearances. Then there is his language, which remains colloquial: the book has liberal helpings of "cool", "dude" and the odd "shit".

I was particularly intrigued by the idea Johnson shares in his last section, where he started to analyse the eighty-eight techniques required to gain a blue belt from Pedro Sauer (the question of whether or not formal testing is a good thing is a different topic, about which I have strong views, but it isn't directly relevant here). I would be very interested in reading an entire book along those lines, if that's a project Johnson ever decides to expand upon in a future release. Borrowing the Master's Bicycle is available to buy for your Kindle here in the US for $5.17 (or in the UK, here, for £3.20).

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