CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Mycologist: The Diary of Bartholomew Leach, Professor of Natural Philosophy (a novel)

By Nicholas P. Money
2017, The Wooster Book Company, Wooster, Ohio
ISBN-13: 978-1-59098-185-6
Paperback, 247 pages
(currently out of print, publisher out of business?)

First off, that’s not a typo, the title of this book does indeed state this book is a novel. If you’re at all interested in Mycology, no doubt you’re familiar with the author, Professor Nicholas Money. He’s written several of my personal favorite mycological titles including The Triumph of Fungi (which is a sort of history of mycology) and Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard (which is a very engrossing history of some mycologists down through the ages). The Mycologist is his first work of fiction. Full disclosure: I know the author and knew this story was in the works, though try as I might to find out some hint as to the subject matter, Money was always keeping me in the dark, offering only that it was to be a short story of historical fiction.

If you’re a reader, no doubt you’ve seen many very acclaimed authors of nonfiction or science and natural history writers venture into the world of fictional writing, only to fail miserably. So it was with trepidation that I received my copy of The Mycologist and began reading … and … it’s actually a pretty delightful little read. As billed, The Mycologist is actually The Diary of Bartholomew Leach, Professor of Natural Philosophy. And although taking place 150 years in the past, the real author (Money) is indeed a mycologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Like Money, our hero Leach is philosophical, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and has especially little time for the evangelicals and creationists he finds himself surrounded with (it is the 1800s—though it sometimes seems things have not much changed in a century and a half of scientific advance!). As you follow the day-to-day thoughts and desires (nearly all of them prurient, to say the least!), it’s fun to imagine how much of Money is in Leach. When he’s not contemplating fungi, Leach is preoccupied with licentious thoughts, genitals, and the rubbing of genitals (his own as well as those of others). I suppose this does make the story read like the very private thoughts written in a diary. (However, the story’s lone sex scene seemed pretty implausible to me.) The climax (pun intended) of the story follows two arcs, one is whether Leach will ever be reunited with his estranged daughter. The other involves our southwestern Ohio mycologist making a landmark scientific discovery. Through his own research and observations on molds he tends in the lab, he notices that there is something going on with the natural variability of spores of fungi. The heritability of shapes of those spores leads Leach to draw conclusions about a natural force we now call Natural Selection. Yes, Bartholomew Leach, Professor of Natural Philosophy at a small college in Ohio is the discoverer of Natural Selection! But will he be able to publish his results before getting scooped by other scientists? (There are rumors that two fellows by the names of Darwin and Wallace have independently made similar discoveries.) I’m not going to ruin the surprise.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi