Where there’s Mushrooms, there’s Money!

Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, by Nicholas P. Money, 2017. Distributed by University of Chicago Press for Reaktion Books.

Why does anybody review books?

I can’t speak for others, but I do it to get hold of a free copy of the book. Well, not just that – it’s also an opportunity to read and write about plants (and plant-related things more broadly) – which I enjoy doing – and to share my uninvited views with an unsuspecting world. But, and let’s be honest, the thrill of seemingly getting ‘something for free’ from a publisher is a big draw. Except it’s not for free. To be able to do a half decent review one does have to at least read some/all of the book. And that takes time. Then there’s the note-taking, the drafting of the review, checking any references, etc. All of which also takes more time, time which can’t be used for another project. So, that time needs to be valued, and that’s a tricky thing to work out. But, for argument’s sake, let’s pluck a figure at random, and say that’s £30 an hour for a professional’s time (expertise, knowledge, etc.). If the book one’s reviewing retails at £50, one should only be spending about two hours on the whole reviewing activity. It usually takes a lot longer to do the review than that. Suppose we give a few of our precious hours ‘for free’ – because we enjoyed reading the book and it’s given us information to use in teaching or other projects – we still end up ‘out of pocket’ in terms of the value of the time invested in the review. But, are the reviews of use to anybody except massaging the ego of the reviewer? One likes to think so. They are thus basically a free – or at least very cheap – form of marketing/publicity for the author/publisher of the book. Which is why it’s extremely unsatisfactory only to be offered a paperback copy of a book to review when there’s also a hard back/cloth version available. Yes, I understand that those copies retail at a higher value than the paperback versions, but isn’t the reviewer’s craft – which must be of benefit to the publisher or else why would they provide review copies in the first place – something to be valued? In which case, isn’t it at least worth the comparatively small extra expense of supplying a hardback copy? Well, good luck using that argument with the publisher (spoiler alert it doesn’t work…) . Anyway, as I said at the start, one is usually grateful for the gift of the book at all that one writes reviews even for those lesser-valued versions…

Which is why I was so pleased to get hold of Nicholas Money’s latest book Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History [hereafter referred to as Mushrooms]. Not only was it an unsolicited invitation to review this book from its distributor, the University of Chicago Press, it was a cloth (‘hardback’) copy! OK, there is currently no paperback version that could have been sent instead, and the books’ retail value is only US$30.00 (about £23.00 with current conversion rates, although for sale at £18.99 at the publisher’s site…), but it’s still nice to have been invited. Although I did spend a lot longer actually reading/reviewing the book than the 18.99/30th of an hour of my time the retail price warranted *.

So, and because one’s time is sadly monetarised, and I do have other projects to be getting on with (including marking, etc. for my ‘day job’), here’s my two-penn’th on Mushrooms… this book is simply amazing! It’s a great read, and absolutely bursting – like an over-ripe puff-ball – with a marvellous mix of mushroom information. Instead of mix I almost said miscellany. But miscellany implies a jumble with no order, which is far from the case; Mushrooms is well-organised. And its 16 numbered chapters (all of which are two-worded, starting with Mushroom…) deliver a feast of fungal facts with remarkable economy of words – Mushrooms’ text is only approx. 164 pages.

So, what does Mushrooms do? It does what the Introduction states, it “introduces mushroom mythology and science, the history of our interactions with these fungi, and the ways in which humans use mushroom as food, medicine and recreational drugs. The natural history is supplemented with profiles of mycologists who advanced the study of the fungi” (p. 7). Which is pretty all-encompassing.

The subject matter of the book is mushrooms. Yes, I know, as the name implies, but that effectively means it deals almost exclusively with members of the Basidiomycetes (p. 8) – which includes toadstools – and thus only about 16,000 (p. 8) of the currently named tally of 70,000 fungal species (p. 8). Although some fungi of interest such as the morels have large, easily-visible-to-the-naked-eye reproductive structures – ‘mushrooms’ – they are not part of the book because they are in the Ascomycetes fungal group (p. 39). Some important pathogens of our crop plants such as smuts and rusts are not included. But that’s not because they’re not Basidiomycetes, they are. They’re omitted because they don’t produce the stalked reproductive structures, the mushrooms, which is the criterion for inclusion of a fungus in this book (p. 39). History-changing, famine-causing potato blight is not included either. Not because the causative organism is not a Basidiomycete (which it isn’t), but because Phytophthora is not a fungus but a so-called water-mould (and doesn’t form mushrooms). Similarly, in discussing medicinal potential of mushrooms, there’s only passing mention of penicillin in Mushrooms. Not because it’s not an important fungal-derived pharmaceutical product, but because it is produced by members of the Ascomycetes. Giving due consideration to these ‘omissions’ means there could well be another book for the esteemed mycologist Money to pen in future, adding to his already considerable output. Bring it on, I say!

However, and even excluding those interesting non-mushroom topics and organisms, there’s plenty for the genial Professor Money to write about. And he does write extremely well, which is a hallmark of his penmanship I recall from my first experience of ‘Money on mycology’, The Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History. And my main recollection of that book was Money’s highly engaging writing style. A style, which, co-incidentally (?), is as accessible and readable as that other academic mycophile’s David Moore (author of that equally treasured fascinating fungal book Slayers, Saviors, Servants and Sex: An Exposé of Kingdom Fungi).

To repeat here some of the interesting insights into mushroom biology – and especially the quirky lives of those who study them(!) such as the ‘Einstein of Mycology’ (p. 82) – would spoil the fun for those who’ve yet to read the book, so I won’t. But, don’t take it from me that Mushrooms is a great book (which can be read in a single sitting if so desired); read the book for yourself. With many of us having a holiday break to look forward to next month, Mushrooms maybe just the thing for the vacation book list? Mushrooms at Christmas, in the company of a real fun-gi, how appealing is that!?


* If I actually followed my advice above, what I ought to have done is looked up the book’s retail price when I first received it and decided that it really wasn’t a good recompense for the time it would take me to review it, and politely decline. Then, asking if I should return the book to the publisher, the answer is highly likely to be no – because it would cost quite a lot for the distributors to repatriate the book to Chicago (USA) from the west country of the UK. Then I’d really be getting a book totally for free – and a hardback one at that. But to do that would have missed the chance to share my enthusiasm for this remarkable book – and Money’s terrific writing style – with the reader(s) of this blogged item. So I didn’t, and this is my review. I hope it’s of some use to somebody…