Review of Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore by Lawrence Millman
We often think of mushrooms as delectable treats sautéed in butter and garlic but did you know that they also play prominent roles in popular culture? In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom. It tells her that eating one side of the mushroom will make her grow taller while the other side will make her smaller. Alice breaks off two pieces and true to the caterpillar’s word, one piece causes her to shrink while the other piece causes her neck to grow high into the trees. Size-altering magical mushrooms also feature in the Super Mario Nintendo video games. A small Mario consumes a red mushroom with white spots, inspired by the fly agaric mushroom, to become an upsized Super Mario.
In Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore, these representations are discussed alongside the almost-magical properties of fungi as they exist in real life. Written by adventure travel writer and mycologist Lawrence Millman and illustrated by artist Amy Jean Porter, the palm-sized book is an illustrated mini-encyclopedia on fungi. Arranged from A to Z, there are more than 180 entries on topics ranging from amatoxins (toxic proteins produced by some mushrooms which do not harm rabbits) to zombie ants whose movements are controlled when infected by a fungus. Also featured are the adventures of famous and little-known experts in fungi as well as other personalities whose paths have crossed with mushrooms, such as composer John Cage who established the New York Mycological Society and taught a mushroom identification course.
It is not everyday that the general public will appreciate a book about fungi and Fungipedia does a wonderful job of introducing these significant but often neglected organisms. More than a mere listing of fascinating facts about fungi, each entry captures the attention of the reader by presenting these details as anecdotes. For example, the entry on the Berserker Mushroom begins with how the mushroom may have gotten its name from its ability to increase maniacal behaviour in Viking soldiers who consumed them. It ends with an amusing hypothesis that as “Berserk” also means “bear shirt” in several Scandinavian languages, Viking warriors who wore shirts made of bear fur inside out may have also gone crazy with the constant rubbing of fur against their skin. A hint of tongue-in-cheek humour is evident throughout the book, especially when Millman writes “Just as we like to eat fungi, certain fungi like to eat us, or at least parts of us…”. As stated in the preface, Millman is less concerned about the scholarly distinctions between different fungi, preferring to refer to them by their common instead of scientific names. Millman writes in the first and second person, often drawing comparisons between the mushrooms and ourselves (“Just like us, gills tend to change color as they age”). The result is a handbook that reads less like a scientific guide than a collection of stories about fungi told by a narrator that is passionate about telling you all about these mysterious organisms.
For mycologists who know all about the intricacies of these complex microorganisms, Fungipedia reads like an anthology of short snippets of their favourite fungi and how they are deeply intertwined in society. As a microbiologist with an unhealthy obsession for all things microbial, I was captivated by the stories about famous and lesser-known mycologists who went to great lengths to study mushrooms, even when they were ostracized. I was also surprised to read that “ambrosia”, a Greek word meaning food of the gods, originated from ambrosia beetles: their food was presumed to have come from the gods as no one knew that they were feeding on fungi. With these fascinating fungal stories, Fungipedia is the book the experts wish they would have written to share their fascination with fungi.
If there is something that Fungipedia lacks, it is more illustrations. While the book is touted as an illustrated mini-encyclopedia of fungi, not every entry is illustrated. Although Millman uses descriptions to paint images about how the fungi look like in the readers’ minds, some entries about intriguing fungi such as the one on Cramp Balls, could do with a drawing. Afterall, a picture paints a thousand words, or in the case of Fungipedia, a thousand mushrooms.
Overall, Fungipedia is a whimsical peek into the obscure world of fungi. The book is as much for general readers as it is for experts in fungi. With its easy-to-read snippets, Fungipedia inspires the general public to find out more about fungi, beyond the knowledge that mushrooms taste good with butter and garlic. On the other hand, experts will appreciate the life-like depictions and illustrations of their favourite fungal subjects. It is a must-read for all.
Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore by Lawrence Millman. Princeton University Press. 2019. 200 pp.