Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller



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 foola 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.



Rating: 2 out of 5.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting approach and concepts. I read this one for Life’s Library Book Club. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a book that would lead to an open, honest discussion about eugenics with a focus on ethical concerns about the practices and human behavior. Would make for a very interesting discussion of comparison to modern day issues, advancement in technology, politics, or perhaps specific people groups such as Uyghur Muslims.

The Story
It was a unique take on not only the subject matter, which is incredibly tragic, but about the process of sourcing material in itself.

For me, I didn’t feel like it offered as much authority and expertise on the matter though, not discounting anyone’s personal experience, and the ways it seemed well-researched, but mostly in the way of how it was mostly surface conversation and much more focused about the author’s journey through it all, which I hadn’t been expecting.

This was all certainly valid, but I think it may offer more to readers outside of what I would find typically interesting because I found myself wanting to explore more of the why type questions, especially given the title. So, a reading experience from that aspect might draw others into it more than me if they like stories that depict the process of learning something as the narrator is discovering it for themselves, and then also writing more about that overall process as a whole on top of that. Like writing a memoir about your process in writing a memoir as you wrote a memoir.

It was multi-layered, like following along with the process about the process while the process has yet to be known as even a process and then writing about that process in its entirety along the way. Some may find that intriguing, to me it was less insightful and less appealing, in fact a bit distracting from the main themes at hand.

I’m not sure if that’s largely in part due to the sequence of events in finding out later, though less surprisingly to me, that there may have been a more subtle messages other than a main message, but all in all, there were a lot of details that were less interesting to me until we got there. And by that I mean it teetered on what I thought might be an attempt to get inside the mind of a criminal contrasted with victim response, but fell short when there weren’t any mentions of freedoms, trust, or indoctrination as important issues when it comes to the subject matter, which barely scratched the surface of what you’d typically find in an introductory university psychology course, much less a criminology course, which I thought this book would be more of an attempt to explain or turning of tables in a different way, instead of telling us what we should be thinking and therefore coming to the conclusion on our own for a more powerful story. But people who may be less aware of such circumstances may have a totally different perspective on this type of reading experience.

There was a telling of old and new, which may have been even more interesting with more context or great in-depth review of not only the perceptions at the time but lessons learned. Examples include mentioning disorders listed as part of DSM, but doesn’t go into detail about criteria or rational or historical or current context, especially when the verbiage mixes symptoms with diagnoses or dated versus modern perception and interpretation. Certain references to public figures were almost tongue and cheek, sort of losing emphasis toward their original intent.

In essence it skips over what gives morality weight and what motivates people leading to why people do what they do. It misses the relationship between law and morality.

The forced sterilization and intertwining of personal experience made it felt like it was perhaps not her story to tell because there seemed to be a bit of disconnect. And I can’t tell if it was as a result of less emotional expression or less logical insight into the psychology and social aspects of influence, loss, or gain. Doesn’t propose much in the way of questioning why people do what they do and why other people respond how they respond, which I think would have added so much strength and depth to the stories depicted in the book. It sort of danced around deeper themes and human behavior.

Mentions the fish getting strung, needle and thread, along with the breaking of jars during the earthquake enough times.

The Writing
Parts read like a BuzzFeed article, others like a college essay with a few personal anecdotes about how the process was for actually sourcing material for the essay as it took place, which I felt to be rather boring to read about.

Absolutely loved the illustrations.

Certainly makes for interesting discussion.

View all my reviews

<span class="uppercase">Hello, I'm Erica </span>
Hello, I’m Erica

Recipe developer, book reviewer, and artist. Expect delicious recipes both traditional and new, book reviews of all sorts of genres, a variety of creative expression, life musings, and much more!



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