The Mushroom Book (1972) John Cage

John Cage was the composer of 4’33”, the piano performance piece that consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of complete silence — except for the mutterings of the audience — and Imaginary Landscape No. 4, in which 12 radios are played at the same time for several hours. He was also the inventor of the ‘prepared piano’, in which a grand piano is filled with nuts, bolts and scrap metal to alter its sound. But Cage once said that if he were to live his life over again, he would be a botanist rather than an artist. He was in fact an amateur mycologist of some distinction, helping to found the New York Mycological Society, winning an Italian TV quiz on mushrooms in the 1950s, and co-writing (with Lois Long and Alexander Smith) The Mushroom Book, shown above. It is composed of lithographs of mushrooms with hand-written texts on mushroom-hunting, mushroom-identification and mushroom-cooking. The writing is superimposed in such a way that the texts are frequently illegible, the idea being that ‘ideas are to be found in the same way that you find wild mushrooms in the forest, by just looking. Instead of having them come at you clearly, they come to you as things hidden, like Easter eggs.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated