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

Lulu Miller

nonfiction biography memoir science
challenging funny informative medium-paced

240 pages | first published 2020

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.

What the community thinks

summary of 132 ratings (see reviews)

Content warnings


Expand filter menu View warnings

Moods

informative 79%
reflective 71%
emotional 46%
hopeful 43%
inspiring 41%
challenging 28%
dark 23%
funny 20%
adventurous 12%
mysterious 10%
sad 5%
relaxing 2%

Pace

medium 61%
fast 25%
slow 13%

Average rating

4.32