Synopses & Reviews
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.
“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.” Leslie Jamison, New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams
“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
“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
"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
About the Author
Lulu Miller is a Peabody Award–winning science reporter who has been working in public radio for over 15 years. She is a cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, a show about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. 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 favorite spot on earth is Humpback Rocks.
Keith Mosman on PowellsBooks.Blog
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