Book Review

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

By Andy Letcher
Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, NY
Hardcover, 2007, 360 pp; ISBN 9780060828288
Paper, 2008, 383 pp; ISBN-10 0060828293, ISBN-13 978-0060828295

Although this book was originally published two years ago, it was recently made available in paper (and if you’re like me, that means you can now scoop up used hardcover copies on the cheap!) and with the theme of this bonus issue…what better time to take another look at this terrific read.

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The first thing that caught my attention about this book was the commentary about the author, on the inside dust jacket. It describes Andy Letcher as “a freelance writer, lecturer and musician living in Oxford, UK,” as well as being a former eco-protestor who once lived in a tree house and who sings and plays the mandolin and English bagpipes in an acid folk band. Oh, and he has two PhDs; one in ecology from Oxford University, the other in religious and cultural studies. Who better to write (possibly a first for the topic) a level-headed, academic account of the use of psychotropic wild mushrooms in different cultures from around the world?

If you are looking for yet another “myconautical” rant on the mystical powers of hallucinogenic mushrooms and how they were used by our proto-human ancestors—and the space aliens who gave them to us—ultimately leading to the foundation of all the world’s religions, then this book will disappoint.

Thankfully, Shroom is not that. The author comes across in no way advocating the use of psychedelic mushrooms—or any illicit drugs—but does not shun those who do. Instead, he takes a nonbiased, journalistic approach of finding the facts and reporting them. Mr. Letcher exhaustively has researched the historical use of magic mushrooms, concluding that (contrary to the writings of Wasson, McKenna and a whole gaggle of “bemushroomed” followers) that the use of psychedelic mushrooms is a fairly recent phenomenon and has no connection to long lost cultures or religions. Andy debunks a whole host of myths surrounding magic mushrooms that we have all heard over the years. His writing style on the topic is refreshingly academic (and still quite entertaining—but don’t be thrown off by his British sense of humour [sic] or spelling [eg. “gaol” is English for prison]) and, most importantly, fact-based. The latter, sorely lacking in most previous books on the topic. Revealed: There was no ancient mushroom cult that started all religions on the planet. Carlos Castenada likely “made up the entire story [of Don Juan] in the library at UCLA.” The legend of Santa Claus could not, in fact, have anything to do with mushrooms, and much more.

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The overriding theme of the book centers on man’s fascination with Amanita muscaria, above and beyond all other mushrooms. It has long been THE symbol of mushrooms, hallucinogenic or otherwise. Which has always seemed strange to me, as—while it is without question a beautiful mushroom—it is not especially psychotropic (or not at all, according to many published accounts). It is toxic but certainly nowhere near one of the most toxic mushrooms. Nor does it naturally occur in the Middle East—the epicenter of Western religions (for which it has long been reported to have played a crucial role). So, why all the fascination?

This book blows away the veil (smokescreen?) that has long perpetuated many myths surrounding this enigmatic mushroom. The author should be lionized for his careful sifting through countless published records and a “small mountain” of letters and documents from the Wasson archives at Harvard University and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. One of the strengths of a book like this, for me, is the extensive references, footnoted in each chapter and compiled at the end of the book. Shortly after the book was first published, the author told me that he had long been intrigued by magic mushrooms and the idea for this book had been in his head since the 1980’s. During his two years of researching this book, the author interviewed a number of “experienced” (to quote Jimi Hendrix) ‘shroom advocates (even attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival) and visited a number of hallucinogenic mushroom wholesalers in Amsterdam (try explaining THAT business expense at tax time!).

Andy does a great job in weaving a terrific story that climaxes with an intimate look into the life of a New York City banker (R. Gordon Wasson), who ultimately helped kick-start the psychedelic '60s (and was infiltrated by a CIA spy!) with a Life magazine article about Mexican mushrooms. Forget everything you’ve ever read about what came next! Cultural icons like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Carlos Castaneda, Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves (author of I, Claudius), mycologist Rolf Singer, and even Charles McIlvaine are all stars in this epic saga.

While I’m confident that Shroom will not change the bemushroomed minds of those proselytizers of the Word of McKenna or Wasson, it is definitely strongly recommended reading for educated mycophiles and mycologists.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi

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