Book Review

The Book of Fungi:
A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World

By Peter Roberts & Shelley Evans
ISBN 978-0-226-72117-0; hardcover; 656 pages)
University of Chicago Press & Ivy Press; 2011

This attractive new book by a pair of British authors is difficult to categorize. It has a hard cover and dust jacket, exhibits the size and heft of a textbook, and the images of the mushrooms show no evidence of the habitat in which they were growing. Thus, it seems not to be a field guide and Roberts and Evans specifically make that point in an up-front disclaimer. However, the text descriptions of the mushrooms are just what one would expect in a field guide. So let’s take a closer look and see what we can make of it.

Starting outside, the dust jacket has a gorgeous collage featuring bright blue entolomas and Lactarius indigo, pink oysters, and orange clusters of Mycena leaiana and Flammulina velutipes. The cover bears a wrap-around color photo of hypholomas in a woodland setting taken from a ground-level perspective. Unfortunately it is one of those photos where nearly everything is out of focus (“softened for artistic effect”), an approach I find hard to appreciate. I think the designers would have done better to repeat the collage on the cover. Now, what’s inside?

The front matter includes a brief general introduction followed by sections entitled What are fungi?, Plant & animal partners, Natural recyclers, Pests & parasites, Food, folklore & medicine, Distribution & conservation, Collecting & identifying fungi, and Guide to the fungi. Each of the first seven of these is only two pages long, with wide margins and illustrations, and so they barely scratch the surface of their respective topics. The guide is a visual key to the major morphologic groups (agarics, boletes, bracket fungi, etc.) and genera. The small size of the images and the degree to which many of them have been cropped make it difficult to see much detail, which will make the key difficult to use for some of the groups. The individual cells direct one to possible genera and provide a page reference for each of them.

The species descriptions occupy 600 pages, one species per page, all following a standard format and providing the sort of information customarily found in a field guide. Each includes: common and scientific names (with the authority oddly being separated from the rest of the scientific name by the intervening common name—a case of designer mischief?); a small world map showing the distribution, usually at a continental scale; a table set in very small type that briefly lists family, distribution, habitat, association, growth form, abundance (of very little use when presented at a continental scale), spore color, and edibility; a too-small gray line-drawing of one or a few specimens, accompanied by height and diameter dimensions in tiny type; and text discussions of general information, similar species, and macromorphologic features. The main illustration is a color portrayal of one (usually) to a few mushrooms extracted from a photo with image-editing software. The specimen(s) is(are) reproduced at life size. Although initially this seems like a good idea, it results in the larger mushrooms having to have portions cut off in order to fit on the page, so they are incompletely shown, for instance as just cap and uppermost stipe. This produces many unattractive images and, more importantly, images in which critical portions are missing, such as the stipe bases and volvas of several amanitas. In some cases, the full specimen is also reproduced at small scale. In others, additional views or specimens are shown. However, in few cases are all the necessary identification features shown as they would be in a typical field guide photo of multiple specimens. In some cases, the illustrated material is atypical, in poor condition, or otherwise unrepresentative of the species, at least as I have seen it, either in the flesh or other books. All of the elements are arranged with an abundance of white space and the overall appearance is rather sterile. Synonyms are not listed, although some are mentioned in the text, and no information on microscopic features is provided. Overall, the designers had too much say and many of their decisions detract from the mycological utility of the book.

So is there a comfortable pigeon-hole for this book? The rationale for the selection of species isn’t obvious. But, given that they are drawn from around the world (with a large proportion being European and/or North American), this isn’t a book you normally would turn to for identification of mushrooms from your local woods. So, as the authors state, it isn’t really a field guide. However, it does include mostly utilitarian field-guide-like information, so it isn’t a typical coffee-table picture book either. I suspect it would be used mainly for browsing in one’s spare time to review familiar species like Amanita muscaria and to become acquainted with perhaps new species such as Caripia montagnei or Amparoina spinosissima. To provide an idea of how many of each you might expect to find, I categorized each of the species by its familiarity, based on my North American perspective and fairly substantial library. Of the 585 mushroom species (15 of the species are lichens, mostly common ones), I felt nearly 60% were ones that have been illustrated in many field guides and similar books and so would probably be familiar to most relatively experienced mushroom-hunters. About 25% have been illustrated occasionally and so might be unfamiliar to many readers. About 15%, mostly species from the southern hemisphere, were new to me or ones that I have seen illustrated only rarely and so would probably be unfamiliar to most North American readers. Although the price isn’t unreasonable for a book of this length and quality, it isn’t cheap and probably would be a luxury purchase for most mushroomers.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Fungi Magazine