Friday, December 26, 2008

Great Books, Entry #1

David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified is a labor of love and a masterpiece of its genre, the field guide. As a nerd who enjoys the outdoors and identifying what I encounter there, I own a healthy number of field guides, but this is the only one I would, and frequently do, read for pleasure.

Field guides have much in common with cookbooks, in that they are oriented toward the eager amateur and must therefore be eminently practical but also technically reliable; but for some reason a good cookbook is almost always better written than a good field guide. I suppose it has much to do with the expectation that field guides will have genuine scientific legitimacy, and the convincing gravitas and stuffiness of style that go with it. I must confess off the bat that I cannot vouch for Mr. Arora's bona fides as a mycologist. My gut, as an academic in an unrelated field, tells me that his shortcomings in this regard are likely to be, as we say in economics, "at the margins."

In addition to what appears to be an encyclopedic knowledge of and childlike enthusiasm for wild fungi, Arora has two more things going for him: he is very, very funny, and he is very informative on the cultural uses of fungi, of course as food, but also as dyes, folk medicines, psychoactives, and the like. He is also extremely careful to make sure that you do not repeat the mistake of the elephant king in the Babar story and kill yourself by eating the wrong fungus; at the same time, he is equally intent that you overcome your fungophobia, the result of years of indoctrination (including Babar!) suggesting that every little mushroom you encounter is a dangerous toadstool.

If you do not feel ready to commit to the 900+ pages of the masterpiece itself, you can get a wonderful and useful taste of Arora in his pocket-size All That the Rain Promises, and More..., a little book that any western hiker will enjoy. In my experience it will help you identify, at least to the genus level, 80-90 percent of the mushrooms you encounter in the Bay Area, and introduce you to some of Arora's fellow fungophiles via cute little anecdotes.

The best reason to own these books is that with them, if you keep your eyes and mind wide open, you will gain an appreciation for the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and ecological and cultural significance of wild mushrooms. Opening up a whole new world so large and full of wonder is really what makes any great book great, and it is a rare thing indeed.

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