My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This was without a doubt the worst book about mushrooms that I’ve ever read. Now, to be fair, I’m relatively certain it’s only the second book about mushrooms I’ve ever read, but it was still much less than satisfying. Writing a compelling science book, and one about a subject as far-ranging and yet obscure as fungus, has to be difficult. But as fascinating as the subject matter may be (and I’m not speaking ironically when I admit I find this particular topic incredibly interesting), unless the author can make that subject come to life, can show the information instead of simply telling it, the exploration will be tedium.
I am in the intended audience for this book: someone without a background in mycology but who is equal parts fascinated and horrified by the kingdom of organisms known as fungi. They’re such a twilight concept: plant-like, yet not plants, little understood or explored by biology at large, causing disease and rot yet also a pharmacopeia of beneficial medicines and psychotropic drugs. They’re as mysterious to most as their most familiar representation: the mushrooms that spring up on summer lawns almost overnight. And like mushrooms, most of what they are remains hidden beneath the soil.
In this book, the author is particularly interested in showing the relationship between the world of fungus and the human world. He wants to highlight species of fungus that have played a role or continue to play an important or potentially important role in human affairs. This includes disease-causing fungi, historically beneficial fungi (like the yeasts that make our bread rise, ferment our beer, and have, arguably, shaped the entire course of human civilization), fungi that cause disease in our crops and trees, and fungi that decay our homes and buildings.
And as you would expect for someone interested in fungi, there are a lot of truly interesting things in here. We get an introduction to the fungal kingdom in general, how they work and how they do the things they do from the point of view of a mycologist. The author then goes through each of his topics in turn with the rigor of an undergraduate survey course (as, incidentally, the book is based upon). I was especially fascinated at the role fungi plays in the fermentation of bread, beer, and wine (I’m currently cultivating in my “fermentation corner” in our kitchen a sourdough starter as well as a jar of kumbucha, a mildly fermented tea) as well as the ability for many to create the chemicals from which we derive many of our antibiotics that still resist laboratory synthesis.
The author is obviously passionate about his topic and eager to pass this along. If nothing else, he succeeds in illustrating the vast scope of influence that fungi have on human life. For all this intention though– and despite the rich content itself, many parts of which could have entailed entire books to themselves– the reading was a drag. In fact, the various chapters often felt like little more than a series of Wikipedia articles: well-written and informative but missing the elusive spark that turns organized knowledge into something more, that translates information into a cohesive and engaging dialogue with the reader.
The entire work is a series of interesting anecdotes. Take the author’s treatment of psychotropic mushrooms. He analyzes the chemical effects that such mushrooms have on the human brain, surveys how they are used in different cultures, and even goes into the history of the investigators in the West who studied the species and brought them to the attention of society at large. This is a fascinating tale, but it’s simply told as you would tell it in a lecture. It’s missing something. It does not reach out and pull the reader into what should be a compelling story that involves Central American tribes, LSD, and academic scandal.
It may not be fair to criticize a book– and one from what I can tell one that is free of errors and obviously written by an expert in the field– that nonetheless does an important job. It brings to light things that are little understood but that have a huge and often ignored effect on human life and flourishing. Still– as interesting as the content was, there’s no escaping the fact that something was lacking: the book was boring.
There are dozens of things to learn in this book to fascinate and horrify, but they’re all passed over from one to the other like you’re on a tour or– as I’ll say again, as it seems the most apt analogy– like you’re reading a series of Wikipedia articles. Perhaps that illustrates one of the challenges in tackling this field: the desire to provide an adequate survey of a huge topic.
One final example. I’ll never forget the one of the most poignant image I have in my memory related to fungi: the time-lapse photography in Discover Channel’s Planet Earth documentary showing mushrooms growing out the bodies of insects on a jungle floor. It was like something out of science fiction. Whether the insects were already dead or still living when infected, they were being consumed from within by something that seemed terrifying and alien and was going to spread spores so it could keep doing this. In this book you might learn a bit about those fungi, but you won’t get any of that wonder and horror: it will simply be another short stop on a tour.