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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

Why Fish Don't Exist A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

Biography / Memoir
By: Lulu Miller(Author)
225 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Part biography, part cautionary tale, the engagingly written Why Fish Don't Exist has several surprises in store.
Why Fish Don't Exist
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  • Why Fish Don't Exist ISBN: 9781501160349 Paperback Apr 2021 In stock
    £16.99 £22.99
  • Why Fish Don't Exist ISBN: 9781501160271 Hardback Apr 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
Selected version: £25.99
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Part biography, part cautionary tale
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Apr 2021 Written for Paperback

    Two things, or so the joke goes, are sure in life: death and taxes. Entropy is another candidate for that list. Why Fish Don't Exist sees science reporter Lulu Miller grapple with the question of how to find meaning in a world where "there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics" (p. 3), to quote her biochemist father. She does so by examining the life of fish taxonomist David Starr Jordan who saw his life's work destroyed – twice – and responded by rebuilding it bigger and better. But is Jordan a suitable role model? In vivid prose that jumps off the page, Miller attempts to come to terms with his complex character, tracing the heights to which confidence can lift you, but also the depths to which it can plunge you.

    David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) was possessed from a young age by the urge to understand and name the diversity of nature. After training under the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz, he became an ichthyologist, made huge contributions to fish taxonomy, and would in time become the founding president of Stanford University. When his research collection of ethanol-pickled fish was destroyed in a fire in 1883, he rebuilt it even bigger. Then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake tore it all asunder again. It shattered hundreds of glass jars and scattered the included name tags – a taxonomist's nightmare. "In some terrible act of Genesis in reverse, his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a heaping mass of the unknown" (p. 4). His response? Start over, this time stitching the name tags directly to the fish with needle and thread.

    Miller contrasts Jordan's life story with her own struggles growing up. How she felt beaten down by her father's take on life: "There is no point. There is no God [...] There is no afterlife. No destiny. No plan [...] These are all things people dream up to comfort themselves against the scary feeling that none of this matters [...]" (p. 34). How she suffered seeing her sister being bullied to the point of dropping out of high school. How she harmed herself and attempted suicide. I admit that I found this part of the book hard as I struggled to sympathise with her – her father's grim attitude resonates much more with me. Your mileage with this may vary, but, regardless, it is not the main thread of this book.

    Instead, she is engrossed with Jordan's life story upon hearing about it, dissecting it for lessons. How can someone find the strength to keep going in a universe that so clearly does not care for the order we try to impose upon it? Even to spit in the face of adversity and double down? Why Fish Don't Exist initially casts Jordan as a hero, a role model to aspire to. But is he really? The second part of the book takes an unexpectedly dark turn.

    Miller briefly looks into the psychology behind (over)confidence. How self-deception, when administered in moderation, can enhance your life. Jordan certainly did not lack these qualities, though they backfired in later years. First, there was his patron, Jane Stanford, who very likely died of poisoning. Jordan publicly changed the story to one of a simple heart attack, undermining professional medical opinion as he went. Stanford was about to fire him from his position as president over misconduct, and Miller and others consider him a likely suspect.

    Darker still is that later in life Jordan became a very vocal spokesperson for eugenics.

    I did not see that coming.

    In what is surely the most harrowing part of this book, Miller delves into the history of eugenics in the US and speaks to some of the survivors. She traces Jordan's beliefs to his mentor, Agassiz, who was convinced that life's diversity hid a divine hierarchy: the Scala Naturae with humans at the top as Creation's crowning achievement. To reveal this order was, according to Agassiz, "missionary work of the highest order" (p. 28). This idea, contends Miller, transformed Jordan's childish hobby of naming nature, filling him "with a burst of purpose that sailed him through life, winning him jobs, awards, wives, children, presidencies" (p. 144). Faced with human imperfections, his belief in a natural order was so unwavering that he wielded it "like a blade, convincing people that sterilization was the soundest way – the only way – of saving the human race" (p. 145).

    Jordan emerges as a complicated character, both virtuous and sinful. Yet, that second part seems to have largely been forgotten. To this day, writes Miller, "his legacy as the swashbuckling giant of fish discovery remains untarnished" before she somberly concludes that "this is the world in which we live. An uncaring world with no sense of cosmic justice" (p. 170).

    In the end, Miller tries to derive some joy from the fact that, as the book's title indicates, the group to which Jordan devoted his life does not exist – from a taxonomical perspective, that is. Fish are a paraphyletic group, meaning a group consisting of the last common ancestor and some, but not all, of its descendants. In this case, we exclude all the other vertebrate groups that descended from the ancestors of fish. From a cladistical standpoint, such group names are invalid – linguistic crutches used in day-to-day language. But even that irony brings little calm to Miller's troubled mind: "Did it matter, in any broader sense, to anyone whose job is not arranging specimens in jars, that fish, as a category, does not exist? It was a question that was beginning to haunt me." (p. 178).

    As much as Miller's mindset might differ from mine, it is the driving force behind her brilliant writing. She engages with her protagonist with a fury that is impressive to behold. In vivid prose that is accompanied by beautiful artwork from Kate Samworth, she paints unforgettable scenes. When the universe uncaringly flexes its muscles and the San Francisco earthquake shatters Jordan's fish collection? "the bastard, the wonderful bastard, takes out his sewing needle and plunges it straight into our ruler's throat" (p. 78). When she recoils at his later fall from grace? "He drank the eugenics Kool-Aid hard and fast. He began hallucinating evidence of heritable personality traits everywhere" (p. 129). When she kicks over Agassiz's Scala Naturae? "The most damning argument came from nature herself [...] This dazzling, feathery, squawking, gurgling mound of counterevidence. Animals can outperform humans on nearly every measure supposedly associated with our superiority." (p. 146).

    In just under two hundred pages, Miller interrogates Jordan's life and manages to make me laugh and cringe, to entrance and horrify me. What starts as a biography of sorts – a homage to an unflappable scientist – turns into a cautionary tale. The unexpected twists by which it arrives there are so engrossing that I read this book in a single sitting.
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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.

Biography / Memoir
By: Lulu Miller(Author)
225 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Part biography, part cautionary tale, the engagingly written Why Fish Don't Exist has several surprises in store.
Media reviews

"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

"Completely entrancing."
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

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