These are books anyone can read to gain a cursory knowledge of anything I may talk about. If something interests you, do pick a copy up. Authors listed are preferred writers and translators. They provide the most objective and clear histories for our money. A solid and factual foundation is essential to learning and can take a long time to tear down a bad one; if information you look for isn't clear or concise, or if you don't know if it's any good, please ask me first.
These are books we find indispensable when it comes to learning history and philosophy. Listed alphabetically. Those with a ❀ by the author's name are ones I personally recommend.
The Art of War - Sun Tzu ❀
The oldest and most absolute classic study of war and fighting. Relevant now as it was then.
The Book of Five Rings - Miyamoto Musashi (Victor Harris translation only) ❀
The essential swordsman's philosophy book. This translation strikes a good balance between understandable, correct, and beautiful. You can actually read this online here http://www.lyberty.com/encyc/articles/samurai/ and it even contains an except from the book I recommend below by Shimabukuro on one of the very styles I study. Rules to live by.
Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior's Primer - William Scott Wilson
An example of old samurai and warrior philosophy and lifestyle. A bit prosey and not always correct but very little else like it has ever been translated and most of it is good.
Classical Bujutsu / Classical Budo - Donn Draeger ❀
A concise, objective history of the development of martial arts in Japan before the Meiji era (Bujutsu) and after (Budo).
Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts - Donn Draeger and Robert Smith ❀
Exactly what it says. A history of martial arts through all of Asia, including some from India and SE Asia.
Gates of Fire: The Battle of Thermopylae - Steven Pressfield
Entirely non-Asian, but poignant enough to martial history that my Sensei says it's a must read even for us martial artists who study katanas and Shaolin and Zen instead of sandals and Zeus and hoplite formations.
The Importance of Living - Lin Yutang
One of the great modern Chinese philosophers tells you why to live and to do it well. Inspiring.
The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy, and Psychology of the Martial Arts - Herman Kauz ❀
By chance, I found this book for $1 used. It came recommended by others on this list. An incredible insight to the non-physical side of martial arts. Similar to Zen In The Martial Arts, anyone could benefit from this read.
Musashi - Eiji Yoshikawa
Historical fiction about the most famous swordsman ever. Still the most accurate book about his existence from what anyone can surmise about him, though.
One Arrow, One Life - Kenneth Kushner ❀
The absolute book about kyuudo/archery to ever. Do not be fooled by Zen and the Art of Archery - that one sucks and is full of elaboration. This is the most real deal, though.
Outlaws of the Marsh: Comic Version - Tsai Chih Chung
A more fun depiction of the Water Margin story, aimed at kids/teens, it remains entertaining and faithful to the source enough that adults can enjoy it, too.
Samurai: Philosophy of Victory - Robert T Samuel
A good, basic samurai history primer.
Samurai Swords - Clive Sinclaire
DO YOU LIKE SWORDS? Here is a shitton of info and pics.
Sangokushi - Yokoyama Mitsuteru
A manga adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. One of the more faithful and complete adaptations of it out there, it can be found scanlated entirely in English at this site.
Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing - Robert Smith ❀
A rare treasure found in a den of a used bookstore in the famous Sonoma Wine Country, this book was compiled and edited by none other than the same Robert Smith found on this list above. One of the martial arts world's greatest modern writers as far as introducing and explaining it to the west, this is a short compilation of information about Shaolin kung fu, or as it's also translated as, boxing. Shaolin is the "grandfather" of Okinawan karate and it would behoove anyone studying it to give this book a scan, as it weighs in at only 70 pages, but it was one of the West's first real solid introductions to the art back in the 60s when martial arts was first becoming popular.
Sword of No Sword: Life of Master Warrior Tesshu - John Stevens ❀
One of the absolute most badass samurai ever is someone you never heard of but should. He invented part of what became modern kendo, wrote copious amounts of poems, and saved Edo from being burned in the coolest way possible meaning Tokyo would not exist without him. See why he's one of our lineage's heroes, despite not being of the same style as him.
This Is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing - J. Sasamori & G. Warner
A basic historical and pictorial guide to the whole basic and universal kendo curriculum, this book is a fascinating time capsule as it comes from the early 60s when East Asian martial arts were only just becoming a common sight in America outside of those in the military returning from the war. Somewhat outdated but well-made for its era. If you're serious about your swordsmanship, it's worth a look just for the initial look Westerners got at Japanese fencing, both as a martial art and a sport, and before it become more commonplace and quality began to deteriorate.
Three Budo Masters - John Stevens
The lives of Kano (founder of Judo), Funakoshi (founder of modern Karate), and Ueshiba (Aikido) are detailed here.
The Unfettered Mind - Takuan Soho (Translated by William Scott Wilson) ❀
What a Zen monk wrote about how to master swordsmanship, despite never having used one himself, his insights using Zen proved invaluable back in Musashi's era to many swordsmen who have never studied Zen. You can read a PDF copy of it here.
Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan - Yang Jwing Ming
The definitive book about the history and techniques pertaining to my specific style of Tai Chi, from its founding days and roots to relaxation and self defense work, and even its rare sword forms. I was lucky enough to find this at a used book store for $1.
Zen In The Martial Arts - Joe Hyams ❀
General daily life lessons inspired by martial arts study. Short and poignant. Literally anyone could benefit from this read. If you only get one book off this list, this is the one.
Stories and tales of samurai, knights, martial artists, warriors, and other fighters that may or may not have been real or based in reality, but are a fun read nevertheless.
The Tale of the Heike/Heike Monogatari - Anonymous (Translation by Royall Tyler) ❀
The grand story/telling of the war between the Taira and Minamoto clans of Japan during the Genpei War of the 12th century. This particular translation aims to read/sound as if it was being told in its original intended performance format. It has roots in both oral tradition and written form, leading to countless versions and adaptations existing, and has been compared to other epics of similar format such as Beowulf, the Iliad and the story of Gilgamesh.
Periodicals worth their punches in print.
Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Bimonthly ❀
America's best martial arts related periodical, this magazine largely covers Chinese related martial arts and the history and philosophy of them, but also has articles covering martial arts in media and interviews with many different kinds of people. Weapons, forms, obscure styles, sparring, self defense, every possible topic is covered, as well as things like recommended recipes for training per Chinese zodiac, if that's your kind of deal. Based in the Bay Area, they cover us and news and events relating to us the most, but they have an international focus and appeal.
And so it goes.
Cooking Zen: Zen Master Dogen's Instructions to the Kitchen Master and On How to Use Your Bowls - Ven. Anzan Hoshin-Sensei
An odd book on an odd subject someone once oddly applied the principals and philosophies of Zen Buddhism to and thought to write down in a short treatise in two sections. See what Zen answer and thoughts are on cooking and eating and the concepts of and related topics such as mindfulness of ingredients and dishes.
These are more textbook like and more pertinent if you actually study the style but they still have some fascinating history and insight to them.
Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do - Shoshin Nagamine ❀
The absolute Bible bar none other of one of the forefathers of modern Okinawan karate on the style he founded, Shorin-Ryu, and particularly his own branch of it known as Matsubayashi-Ryu or Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu, which gets its name and origins from Chinese Shaolin kung fu. The man was also considered a Zen master and one of the few recognized as achieving true Zen via something not meditation; he used karate instead. The book simultaneously acts as a historical text and a photo and text based curriculum for people currently studying the art.
Flashing Steel: Mastering Eishin-Ryu Swordsmanship 2nd Edition - Masayuki Shimabukuro ❀
The second half is a reference for his branch of Eishin-Ryu which is my main samurai arts/swordsmanship style, but the first half is the history and philosophy of it. Study what one of my two main samurai arts styles is all about, even if it's not the exact same branch of it. (I do Harusuke-Ha)
Katori Shinto Ryu: Warrior Tradition - Risuke Otake ❀
The style I will graduate into someday, the oldest style still in existence, requiring teachers to sign a blood oath to teach it. What little is still practiced is unrivaled swordsmanship. They even have their own Shinto Kami - Futsunushi no Kami, the Kami of swords, lightning, and Amaterasu's war general. This is about the most real deal imaginable. The book is simultaneously both in English and Japanese.