A Best Book of 2020: The Washington Post * NPR * Chicago Tribune * Smithsonian
A “remarkable” (Los Angeles Times), “seductive” (The Wall Street Journal) debut from the new cohost of Radiolab, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a dark and astonishing tale of love, chaos, scientific obsession, and—possibly—even murder.
“At one point, Miller dives into the ocean into a school of fish…comes up for air, and realizes she’s in love. That’s how I felt: Her book took me to strange depths I never imagined, and I was smitten.” —The New York Times Book Review
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 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 that 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 is a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.
NPR science reporter Miller, in her scattered debut, relates the life of influential taxonomist David Starr Jordan (1851 1931) to struggles in her own life. During early adulthood, as "I made a wreck of my own life," she became fascinated with Jordan's "stand against Chaos," in a career which saw him collect and name many thousands of species of fish. Her account of Jordan's boyhood passion for science conveys gentle na vet : "In the privacy of his room he'd sit... discerning which flower was which, unbuttoning its genus, its species." As Miller discusses her teenage depression, which culminated in a suicide attempt, the writing turns raw: "I woke to bright lights... the humiliation of a nurse, paper sheets beneath my ass." The narrative then rather jarringly turns back to Jordan, as he scours the Pacific Coast for new fauna and becomes president of Stanford. Covering the darker chapters of Jordan's life, Miller discusses his murky involvement in a possible cover-up around the death of the university's "founding mother," Jane Stanford, and, following his dismissal from Stanford, his key role in popularizing the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Jordan is a fascinating figure, but Miller's rapid shifts in subject and perspective result in a frustratingly disjointed work.
Why Fish Don’t Exist
This book answers questions I didn’t know to ask. A spectacular surprise!
An amazing shape-shifter of a book
Memoir, biography, science, murder mystery, philosophy - the writer flows from one genre to another and back so seamlessly, it’s like magic. One of the best books I have ever read.