Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller

January 18, 2024 Book Reviews 8 ★★★★★

Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu MillerWhy Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
Narrator: Lulu Miller
Published by Simon and Schuster Audio Format: Audiobook
Source: gift
Purchase: Amazon | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Audible | Chirp
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A wondrous debut from an extraordinary new voice in nonfiction, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a dark and astonishing tale of love, chaos, scientific obsession, and—possibly—even murder.

David Starr Jordan was a taxonomist, a man possessed with bringing order to the natural world. In time, he would be credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. But the more of the hidden blueprint of life he uncovered, the harder the universe seemed to try to thwart him. His specimen collections were demolished by lightning, by fire, and eventually by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—which sent more than a thousand of his discoveries, housed in fragile glass jars, plummeting to the floor. In an instant, his life’s work was shattered.

Many might have given up, given in to despair. But Jordan? He surveyed the wreckage at his feet, found the first fish he recognized, and confidently began to rebuild his collection. And this time, he introduced one clever innovation that he believed would at last protect his work against the chaos of the world.

When NPR reporter Lulu Miller first heard this anecdote in passing, she took Jordan for a fool—a cautionary tale in hubris, or denial. But as her own life slowly unraveled, she began to wonder about him. Perhaps instead he was a model for how to go on when all seemed lost. What she would unearth about his life would transform her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet.

Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist reads like a fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.

This book contains mature content and may not be suitable for younger readers.

Captivating, surprising, and ultimately hopeful

Why Fish Don’t Exist is a short but well-written and captivating book which combines biography, memoir, science (particularly taxonomy), and philosophy. Written by Lulu Miller, who cohosts both RadioLab and NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, the book recounts Miller’s fascination and subsequent disillusionment with David Starr Jordan, a prominent scientist and scholar during the late 19th and early 20th century. An ichthyologist, passionate about taxonomy, Jordan rose to become the first president of Stanford University and, following his retirement, an outspoken advocate for peace. But as Miller shares her discoveries about Jordan with the reader, a darker side of the man emerges.

Miller’s writing is engaging, even poetic at times, and she certainly knows how to tell a story. She punctuates the biographical chapters with sections on her own life and her struggle to find meaning and order in a universe where chaos reigns supreme. Despite some darker sections*, it’s ultimately a hopeful book, and one I am glad to have read.

*CW: Sensitive readers should be aware that the book includes discussions of some difficult topics, including suicidal ideation, eugenics, and possible murder.

Challenges: Audiobook Challenge 2024; The Backlist Reader Challenge 2024; Coyer Unwind – Chapt. 1


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobook Challenge 2024
  • COYER Unwind (2024) - Chapter 1
  • The Backlist Reader Challenge 2024

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