Created January 29, 2009. Revised May 27, 2012; April 30, 2013; and May 27, 2013.
Copyright 1998-2013 by John W. Allen.

A Review of Andy Letcher's book
"Shrooms: A Cultural History."

G. V. Guest


G. V. Guest's Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
A Welcome Complement to Pinchbeck (March 24, 2007.

Andy Letcher's Shroom is an excellent history of the magic mushroom (mostly A. muscaria, P. semilanceata, and P. cubensis). Most of what one finds in psychedelic literature is idiotic speculation - from Timothy Leary's fantasy that if only enough people would take LSD we'd have world peace to Terence McKenna's arbitrary math with which he claims some sort of apocalypse in 2012. Thankfully, Letcher's history is sober. His central thesis is that the mushroom is in fact a drug that has only recently become popular and that there is little or no evidence for the use of mushrooms for mystical experiences outside of the modern context. He discusses Siberian shamanism, Mexican healing practices, accidental poisonings in Europe, and the modern explosion of mushroom use from Wasson through Psilocybe Fanaticus.

I have a few complaints, but these are not enough to reduce my rating of the book. First, his prose is awkward at times, and his diction can be irritating: the word "preternatural" seems to crop its head up in all sorts of strange contexts. Second, he misunderstands or simplifies certain concepts in post-structuralism, especially the idea of the ethnic "other." And finally, though Shroom is intended as a history, he should have spend more time on the cultural context and phenomenological experiences of magic mushroom use. He claims, for instance, that there was a shift from seeing the mushroom as poisonous to seeing it as mystical. There are some intriguing examples of the 19th Century perception of the mushroom as affecting the nervous system negatively, and this seems like a wonderful opportunity for Letcher to apply some of his cultural studies training to analyze the discourse surrounding the mushroom experience, but he ignores it completely.

I would suggest this book as a companion to Pinchbeck's Breaking Open the Head. Pinchbeck's book is a New Journalism-style exploration of the current use of psychedelic drugs, and it complements Letcher's book because Letcher doesn't discuss the use and interpretation of the psilocybin experience by contemporary psychonauts. I would, however, caution readers away from Pinchbeck's newer book 2012; it's one more contribution to the inane speculation about psychedelics for which Letcher's book is an effective antidote.

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