Lulu Miller writes of chaos, of scientist David Starr Jordan, of the elegance that can come from putting everything in order (be it emotions, milestones in life, fish in jars). She intersperses her own story and personal reflections within history and true crime events, scientific discoveries and hidden horrors. I have raved about this book at multiple coworkers and added it to my small stack of “books I have hugged upon finishing.” It is dog-eared, something I never do (which I attribute to all the chaos in said book), and a book I’ll be recommending to as many folks as possible.
This book had me from the opening paragraph. I loved the balance between biography and autobiography. This book changed my view of the world by redefining something I had always overlooked. I will never see a fish or hear the word without thinking of this book.
Selected as a Staff Favorite Book of 2020 by Jade, Bookshop's Head of Receiving, and by Tori, Bookshop bookseller.
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.”—TheNew 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.
About the Author
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.
“What a delightful book... Ms. Miller wields [Radiolab’s] familiar format with panache, spinning a tale so seductive that I read her book in one sitting.” — The Wall Street Journal
“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
“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
“Remarkable... Lulu Miller draws a heartening lesson — that chaos, which comes for us all, can be defeated by sheer human stubbornness.” — Los Angeles Times
“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
“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
“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 This is Chance!
“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.” — Undark
“Wholly unique and a true delight!” — Refinery 29
“The original, intricate illustrations… that accompany each chapter are captivating, with an otherworldly, even nightmarish quality. They lend the book an air of antiquity, as though the reader is holding a 19th-century science text or a Bible… Intriguing and illuminating.” — Washington Independent Review of Books