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Why Fish Don't Exist
“Despite having no general interest in ichthyology, taxonomy, or old white eugenicists, Why Fish Don't Exist was one of the most engaging stories I have ever read. The audio edition, read by the author, is ridiculously charming. It meanders between a biography and a memoir, and it's refreshing to read a narrative that isn't afraid to change its course when presented with new information. It made me want to read more about the philosophy of science, as well as anything Miller writes in the future.”Ian,
Page 1 Books
“This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time. Miller, motivated by her relationship with her father, and a lifelong search for meaning, closely examines David Starr Jordan, the larger-than-life father of American Ichthyology and founding president of Stanford University. If you ever wondered how fish identification and eugenics are connected, you’re about to find out. When science is used to find proof of a divine hierarchy, the consequences are real, and devastating. Miller’s book is a beautiful invitation to shift the paradigms about how to find and make meaning in our own lives.”Erin,
Honest Dog Books
“Just... wow. Never have I read anything like this. It's remarkable. To say it's part memoir and part biography of David Starr Jordan, the famous taxonomist (don't worry, I didn't know who he was either), on some level is true, but it doesn't even begin to encompass everything this book is. In just over 200 pages, Miller tackles existential philosophy, the depths of the cosmos, racism, queerness, human hatred and human resilience, and much, much more. At its heart, this book is an examination of the friction between humans and chaos, between man and nature. I'd hate to say anything more, because, like David Starr Jordan, it's all about the discoveries. I will say, though, that by the end you will 100% believe that fish do not exist and you will be so, so happy to know it. It'll be the best news you've ever heard. Some books you just love and some books you cherish, and WHY FISH DON'T EXIST is one to be cherished.”Conner,
“Half memoir, half biography, Lulu Miller's examination of David Starr Jordan and the lies we tell ourselves to keep going is phenomenal. Nuanced and unputdownable. (And especially great on audio!)”Nicole,
“I've followed Lulu Miller's audio stories on public radio for years and I found Why Fish Don't Exist absolutely absorbing. Part memoir, part scientific deep dive into the life of David Starr Jordan (a taxonomist who discovered one-fifth of the fish known to humans), Why Fish Don't Exist examines order and chaos in the world with humor and deep personal insight.”Rachel,
“I was absolutely riveted to this beautiful book. This story is fascinating and seamlessly threaded into the author's own struggles. It made me pause, rewind, start over, cry, laugh.....it's just one of the best memoirs I've ever read.”Nichole,
The Yankee Bookshop
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.
Lulu Miller is the cohost of Radiolab, cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, and a Peabody Award–winning science journalist. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, VQR, Orion, Electric Literature, Catapult, and beyond. Her favorite spot on earth is Humpback Rocks.