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.
Lulu Miller is a Peabody Award-winning science reporter who has been working in public radio for over fifteen years. She is a co-founder of NPR’s Invisibilia, a show about the invisible forces that shape human behaviour. She is also a frequent contributor to Radiolab. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, VQR, Orion, Electric Literature, Catapult, and beyond. Her favourite spot on earth is Humpback Rocks.
"Stunning and brilliant and completely un-sum-up-able [...] I love this book so much!"
– John Green, New York Times bestselling author of Turtles All the Way Down
"Riveting and rollicking [...] total magic."
– Garden & Gun
"What a delightful book [...] Ms. Miller [spins] a tale so seductive that I read her book in one sitting."
– The Wall Street Journal
– O, The Oprah Magazine
"A great escape [...] [and] an extended reflection on how to weather the storm during trying times."
"Unconventional [...] What initially seems like an homage to an indomitable scientist [turns] into a philosophical tale about the limitations of tidy narratives and the dangers of unyielding belief."
"I want to live at this book's address: the intersection of history and biology and wonder and failure and sheer human stubbornness. What a sumptuous, surprising, dark delight."
– Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
"Some years back, Lulu Miller disappeared down a very strange rabbit hole that led her to places neither she nor you would ever be able to anticipate. I highly recommend you follow her down the hole, because of her singular and gigantic gifts as a writer and storyteller, but also because of what's down there: love, chaos, strychnine, a gun, dangerous delusions, heroic dandelions, a cow, a snorkel mask through which grander truths are revealed [...] This book is perfect, just perfect. It's both lyrical and learned, personal and political, small and huge, quirky and profound."
– Mary Roach, New York Times bestselling author of Stiff
"Why Fish Don't Exist is a book about losing love and finding it, a book about how faith sustains us and also how it grows toxic. It's a story told with an open-heart, every page of it animated by verve, nuance, and full-throated curiosity. I loved this book for its sense of wonder as well as its suspicion of that wonder – its belief that on the other side of interrogation there are even deeper, more specific enchantments waiting."
– Leslie Jamison, New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams
"Riveting. Surprising. Shocking, even! Why Fish Don't Exist begins with a mesmerizing account of the life of distinguished biologist David Starr Jordan – and then, quite unexpectedly, turns into so much more. Narrated in Lulu Miller's intimate, quirky voice, this is a story of science and struggle, of heartbreak and chaos. This book will capture your heart, seize your imagination, smash your preconceptions, and rock your world."
– Sy Montgomery, New York Times bestselling author of The Soul of an Octopus
"Lulu Miller moves gracefully between reporting and meditation, big questions and small moments. This book is a magical hybrid of science, portraiture, and memoir – and a delight to read."
– Susan Orlean, New York Times bestselling author of The Library Book
"I love this book's profundity and wit, its moments of darkness and heart-bursting euphoria, and I love the oddball, literary charisma of the mind that wrote it. Plus, by the end – I'm not joking – Lulu Miller may have actually cracked the secret to life."
– Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones
"From page one, Lulu Miller is building something. A personal philosophy. A story. Of a man. Of America. It's all of these things but it's something bigger still and it all happens so gradually that by the last few pages I was shocked to find myself in tears. Like in her best radio stories, Lulu Miller coasts along, easy and seemingly without effort until she cold-cocks you. This book is a beautiful reminder of the sublime mystery of our being alive."
– Jonathan Goldstein, creator of the podcast Heavyweight
"An ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence. A quirky wonder of a book."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Profound [...] gripping, and sure to be on readers' minds long after the final pages."
– Booklist (starred review)
"With the intrigue of a murder mystery, this slim work is also a philosophical exposition on the human inclination to make order out of chaos."
– Library Journal