Review: Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
Mushroom consumption has been a countercultural act since the mid-70s, a psychedelic single-fingered salute to society. Mycophiliacs have argued that, unlike other mind-altering drugs, fungi have a long and rich cultural heritage, one that is rooted in religious ceremonies across the globe. But, as Andy Letcher shows in this extraordinary account, the history of the magic mushroom is beset by culturally contingent myth-making, often introduced by shroomers eager to justify their psychedelic pleasure.
In fact, magic mushrooms didn't emerge until the 1950s, when American scientists were fascinated by LSD and mescaline. Mushrooms - and their constituents - were soon adopted by academics such as Timothy Leary who believed that the psychedelic revolution was imminent. But, unlike LSD, shrooms became more acceptable if they could be justified as nature's drug. Enthusiasts quickly set about establishing a history of these fantastical fungi and read mushroom presence into almost every culture. Legends were quickly born and disseminated in newspapers and documentaries despite the fact that, as Letcher shows, the evidence marshalled was often flimsy at best.
It will probably take more than this well-researched book to change people's minds about mushroom myths but, with its easy style and witty handling of scientific analysis, it makes a fascinating and satisfying read.
By Andy Letcher