- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Ecco; First U.S. Edition, 1st Printing edition (February 27, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060828285
- ISBN-13: 978-0060828288
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,037,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom Hardcover – February 27, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Letcher, an eco-protestor who once lived in a tree house, wrote this exhaustive history in order to debunk the folklore in which mushroom munchers have rooted their appreciation of the hallucinogen. The "bemushroomed," he says, proselytize that the fungus inspired humans to construct Stonehenge, found Western philosophy and even think up Santa Claus. To demonstrate that the real story is "less fanciful and far more interesting," Letcher draws on biological and archeological studies, social history and even his own diaries to chronicle phenomena like Algerian cave drawings that look suspiciously like mushrooms and the plight of Siberian shamans. But he often buries his best material. It's startling, for example, to learn that a New York City banker helped kick-start the psychedelic '60s with a Life magazine article about Mexican mushrooms. But Letcher digresses for 18 pages before finally delivering the kicker: financier Gordon Wasson engaged in a grave deception to gain access to the goods and declared himself blameless as hippie hordes destroyed the ancient community Huautla. Major figures like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg appear, but are also subsumed by Letcher's colorless, academic style. Readers expecting a druggie classic in the style of Aldous Huxley or Carlos Castaneda will be disappointed. (Feb. 27)
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One evening in 1916, "upright American surgeon" Beaman Douglass and his wife ate some "innocuous wild mushrooms . . . fried in butter and served on toast." En route to an evening of bridge, both experienced "preternatural waves of giddiness." After dizziness, hilarity, depression, and difficulty breathing, Mrs. Douglass required treatment with "atropine, morphine, and an arsenal of emetics." "She played cards badly that night," her husband noted. Writing later for a mycological journal, he found "no merit" in the experience and hoped to "prevent others from making similar foolish mistakes." It never occurred to him that people might deliberately seek what he chanced upon. The bulk of Letcher's text concerns people doing just that. From psychoactive mushroom usage by the Aztecs and Siberian tribesmen on, Letcher lays out the history of the use and suppression of psychedelic mushrooms and how they "went from being an obscure poison to being . . . hawked on street corners" and cultivated in cellars. Pretty much essential for popular recreational-drug-use book collections. Mike Tribby
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First, he portrays Wasson as a con artist who became famous as a result of clever salesmanship rather than for "clarity or originality of his thinking." He criticizes Wasson for skewing his data to fit a preconceived idea, but this is exactly what Letcher does. Letcher's premise is that psychoactive substances played no part in Old World religious practices (funny that they should have played such an important role in the other hemisphere). He overlooks or discounts historical data which demonstrates such a link as being "plot devices" of ethnocentric researchers trapped in the mindset of the sixties. We have seen this approach many times before: old theories are about as useful as old pop songs and TV shows, it's time to move forward and take the opposite view. But Letcher once again commits the same error he accuses others of committing by using flawed and dated arguments. One example is his assertion that if Soma was a hallucinogenic mushroom, it would have been simply eaten. Why go through the elaborate process of crushing, mixing, and filtering it? Evidence suggests that Soma was used in a mixture of various psychoactive and non-psychoactive substances, and hallucinogenic mushrooms went through a similar mortar-and-pestle procedure in Central America.
He paints a picture of ancient people ignorant of the plants around them. When plants such as cannabis, poppy, and henbane show up in the archaeological record, he dismisses their possible psychoactive use in favor of such applications as food and medicine. But medicine is always closely linked to the removal of "harmful" spirits in religious practices worldwide (Letcher considers "shamanism" to be a dirty word in his semantic shell games). His view is that it's okay to acknowledge drug use in the rites of the heathen Native Americans, but to say the same thing might have happened in the Middle East is striking too close to our religious traditions. In the end, Letcher comes across as a bizarre "counterculture" version of Jerry Falwell complete with hippy hairdo and "acid folk group."
Letcher saves his most scathing criticism for John Allegro, who is described as a "troubled mind" from the Erich von Daniken school of academia. Citing John King's rebuttal to The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross is another blunder on Letcher's part. If "the fly-agaric and its host-tree species are entirely absent from the flora of the Middle East," then why did the Israeli postal service issue stamps with fly-agarics in 2002? Has he bothered to check his facts? Attacking the character of a person simply cheapens your argument, and playing fast and loose with the facts makes you no more of a scholar than von Daniken.
Terence McKenna is given better treatment by being portrayed as a misguided product of his time. Letcher crafts himself as an exemplar scholar in a world of conspiracists, but after discounting the time-wave theory, he strangely states, "the demolition of the time-wave does not preclude something interesting, unusual, or even of great magnitude from happening as predicted." Maybe Letcher thinks it will be the apocalypse. The bottom line is that he is more influenced by von Daniken than was Allegro, he is far less original than the "amateur" Wasson, and he is much more misguided than McKenna.