Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mushroom, my book review

Santa was kind, and read my Amazon wish list, and brought me a shiny new copy of Nicholas Money's new book Mushroom.   Now, I have a shelf full of books about mushrooms, and another shelf or two about other fungi that don't produce mushrooms, so I wasn't sure what to do once I had the thing in my hand.   A couple of points in the interest of full disclosure: 1. I haven't read all of my mycology books thoroughly, there just aren't enough hours in the day and there is lots of redundant information, so I don't feel like a bad person (or Persoon?) for this. And 2., I haven't read Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard, also by Dr. Money, nor either of his other books, though I feel as though I should now, since I enjoyed Mushroom so thoroughly.

Yes, having the book in my hand, and having some time between semesters, I did what a scholar should do when not teaching or out in the field (looking for fungi) or in the lab; I read the book.  And what a joy it was!  In spite of my beef with other reviews of the book which had nothing at all to do with the book itself,  I found it to be a good read on many levels (namely three).

It's educational. Even to a trained mycologist such as myself, I found much that I did not previously know within its pages.  He incorporates modern research as well as historical details about mushrooms and their academic acolytes.  That said, the writing, I think, isn't restricted to an audience of mycologists, but is accessible to a lay audience (though perhaps one that at least passed a course in biology).  As evidence of this, a friend who is an academic though not a scientist picked up the pick and started reading delightedly.

It's funny.  And no, he doesn't resort to cheap laughs so much as humorous imagery to illustrate points (such as Angelina Jolie flying through the air into a... not going to spoil the ending).    The hackneyed "fun-guy" reference is avoided, mercifully.  Most mycologists I've met have had a healthy sense of humor, and Dr. Money is no exception.

His views on the public perception of mycology succinctly defined and girded my own.  Mushrooms and other fungi have generally had two strikes against them in the eyes of the laity.  1.  They are bad, agents of sickness, decay and disease, and 2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm.
As to the first point. There is a common perception that mushrooms will kill you dead as soon as look at you.  True enough SOME mushrooms contain toxins that will either kill you or make you wish they had killed you, but the generalization of mushrooms being bad and poisonous has been exaggerated.  If you went out in the woods collecting mushrooms, and tried to eat all of them, it would be an act as indiscrete as saying you wanted to go hunting mammals in the woods with your bare hands.  Maybe you'd find a squirrel, but maybe you'd find a porcupine, or a mountain lion.  The potential results are the same.  Maybe you find a meal, but maybe the quarry would hurt or kill you instead.

As to the second point. (2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm)
Mushrooms and the fungi that produce them do have value ecologically, as well as having potential application to problems of humanity (both in the sense of those problems we cause and the problems we face in our quest for survival). However we should approach these solutions with a scientific mind, not by suggesting the fungi have a source of magic that we can tap if we all just wish hard enough.

For both of these points, the real problem is ignorance, and the real solution is a scientific approach.

In summary, if you have an interest in mushrooms (which well you might if you are reading this), then you will likely enjoy this book.  It won't tell you how to identify mushrooms (here you will need to fill your own bookshelf with other works), but it will hopefully explain why you should try.

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