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

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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.

225 pages, Hardcover

First published April 14, 2020

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About the author

Lulu Miller

2 books555 followers
Louisa Elizabeth Miller, better known as Lulu Miller, is an American writer, artist, and science reporter for National Public Radio. Miller's career in radio started as a producer for the WNYC program Radiolab. She now co-hosts the NPR show Invisibilia with Alix Spiegel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,229 reviews
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
613 reviews5,002 followers
September 12, 2021
There are books, and then there are the life-changing sorts of books. For me, this is one of the latter.

This is a memoir that details a time in the author's life when she was sorely in need of a role model. She had recently made a huge, life-ruining mistake, destroying a relationship she valued, when she came across a story of how a historical figure, taxonomist David Starr Jordan, in the wake of an earthquake, starting pinning nametags to the dead fish specimens he worked so hard to catalog so that never again would a California earthquake threaten to upend his progress. Miller couldn't get the image of him poking lifeless fish bodies with pins out of her head. Jordan became a fascinating specimen himself, at least to Miller, and she began doing research on this man who looked at the entropy of the world and raised his fists.

But while Miller unearthed some admirable qualities of the scientist - things she could use to inform the type of person she wished to become - she also found some very dark secrets lodged in his story, and the whole research process got her to thinking about whether the universe's chaos can actually be tamed.

I enjoyed this book the whole way through, but it was the ending that knocked my socks off. It overturns everything that came before it, but also puts the rest of the book into perspective. It's the most brilliant ending to any book I've ever read and was literally jaw-dropping.

It's a stunning book, basically. One of my all-time favorite works of nonfiction. I rave about it more over on Booktube!
Profile Image for Hayley DeRoche.
Author 1 book58 followers
April 22, 2020
I cannot fully express how perfect this book was for reading during COVID-19 crisis. It's perfect. It's Chaos, it's order, it's loss, it's love.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews610 followers
May 22, 2020
Audiobook read by the author, Lulu Miller

This was a book that I appreciated more than really enjoyed.
.... My mind drifted off to much...
.... it took me forever to understand what the author was trying to say. She was trying to figure out chaos from Jordon, ( he had plenty in his life), and how it affected her life.
....it’s still a little puzzling why Lulu picked David Starr Jordon to study in relationship to her needs.
....Lulu thought Jordon had a handle on life - and she might learn how to do the same if she studied him.
....And what did the title mean? Symbolically it represents loss I suppose.

The sad truth: my favorite part of the book was the epilogue. It was the most personal- about ‘Lulu’.
...many parts of this book went right over my head.

....I’m sure I didn’t understand half of it ( my problem; no fault of the author)

....I did learn a ‘little’ .... simply by sticking to it.

Things I learned:
....Lulu likes fish.
....David Starr Jordon ( 1851-1931), was the founding president of Stanford University. I had no idea about this, prior to this book. He was an educator, scientist, biology teacher, peace activist, explorer, a taxonomist, and was especially known for being an ichthyologist...(a branch of zoology studying fish)
..... many schools around the country were named after David Starr Jordon.
....Lulu was interested in Jordan as a way of discovering what kept him motivated during a time when she was dealing with depression. And remember..: she liked fish -as much as Jordon liked fish.
....Jordon discovered about 20% of fish - their names and fish-characteristics.
....Jordon was an advocate for eugenics ( legal sterilization for the ‘feeble minded).... YUCKY!

Like I said, much of this book went over my head… I didn’t understand the the overall purpose... not ‘gut level experientially’, anyway.
It’s part biography, part philosophy, psychology, relationship driven, murder mystery, love story, mental health, fish details, memoir, and part coming of age.

Basically... I tried ( gave it my campers Girl Scout attention)
... this book is simply a little weird and quirky. I wasn’t passionately connected.

I liked Lulu’s - audio-speaking voice ...but shame on me... I just wasn’t interested enough in Jordon.
His connection with the SF 1906 earthquake was a little thought-provoking...( his fish specimens came crashing down), but I’m still not sure what insights I was to have taken in.
I ‘was’ interested in Lulu’s personal life,
and loved her ‘love-story’ ending - where her happy self shines!

I appreciated the few things I learned - and the author’s work, but it didn’t ‘wow’ me.

Profile Image for Tori Thompson.
206 reviews5 followers
April 23, 2021
I had a hard time with this one. It was well written, felt well researched, and the audiobook was a solid performance by the author. I'm not surprised at the book's overall rating, and think if it had covered almost any other subject I would've enjoyed it a lot more. But I went into it already knowing that David Starr Jordan was a bastard eugenicist, and it made reading the first 75% of this book and its glowing account of his life and work and perseverance uncomfortable to the point of excruciating. By the time we finally got to reckoning with the profound damage he'd done, I'd given up hope that the author was even going to address it at all; and though I was impressed by how it was eventually handled and how thoroughly those beliefs were condemned, it felt like far too little too late. It felt to me as though the author was more (or at least equally) distraught at discovering her hero was a flawed individual than at the immense and immeasurable horror his beliefs and power and actions enabled him to inflict. And that's not even counting the fact that he definitely murdered that lady, I mean, holy shit this dude was literal trash.

I think a lot of people will be able to enjoy this book much more than I did, and I don't really fault them for it. As a neurodivergent woman of color with a chronic pain disorder, I'm honestly not particularly interested in listening to white women assuaging their guilt over their "problematic faves" on a good day, let alone when that person would have actively called for my forced sterilization (if not death) on the basis of my existence and then went on to directly enable the state's ability to do so. Gotta say, that makes it pretty difficult to engage with descriptions of him as a young man as "sultry" or sympathetic in any imaginable way.

If this book had been any longer, I probably wouldn't have finished it; I think it was the perfect length for the amount of information there was to get across. And the writing is really engaging, even if it was a little too quippy and personable for my usual preferences in nonfiction. I kept listening hoping that the text would eventually address the racism and bigotry, and technically we got there eventually and I do believe it was addressed well. But it just felt a little too dismissive for my tastes; being one of the fathers of American eugenics is not merely an unfortunate footnote in the life of an otherwise-decent man, and I would've liked to see that acknowledged at every turn rather than being used as an emotional "gotcha" toward the end of the book. And I had a difficult time engaging with the author's journey of self-reflection that seemed to be the real crux of the story. I keep ending up railroaded by white podcast/NPR personalities writing what I think is going to be a nonfiction book and turns out to be a camouflaged memoir, and I'm really over it tbh.
Profile Image for Stephen.
279 reviews56 followers
January 8, 2020
I wanted to like this more. Miller is a gifted writer and her subject is fascinating, and she does a good job of untangling the various threads that make David Starr Jordan both compelling and fascinating.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get past the tone of hokey cuteness. (Miller's bio says she is a "frequent contributor to Radiolab, which I find nearly insufferable for this exact tone.) The jokey tone is at best irritating, and at worst, as when the writer refers to a dictator responsible for the death of 6 million Jews as "some German guy named Hitler," it makes the book occasionally unbearable.

Profile Image for Lindsay.
190 reviews157 followers
August 7, 2023
Trigger Warnings : Rape, Eugenics, Nazism, Forced Sterilization, Racism, Ableism, Childhood Incarceration. I probably missed some of them in my list but just know this covers a lot of hard to read topics.

I annotated and highlighted .... that's how much I loved this book.

I was tentative at times; I was only reading this in preparation for a convocation coming's up this fall for uni. However, this won me over in a somewhat disjointed but ultimately elegant blending of nonfiction (which I tend to hate)... a biography of David Starr Jordan and a memoir of the author herself.

Initially, as an aspiring anthropologist and a uni student, I kept thinking about all the contemporaries or predecessors of Jordan that would have been more interesting for me to read about like the more obvious taxonomist - Linnaeus. I didn't really care about the life story of someone who studied fish, however, Jordan's profession and focus didn't stop this narrative from exploring deep important philosophical and political beliefs that ran head long into ethical issues. In many ways, Jordan's inability to only focus on his fish pushed him headlong into one of America's most shameful "scientific" developments... eugenics.

My junior year of high school, I took AP Gov and we discussed required court cases that overturned or upheld prior precedent. The case from this book (Buck v. Bell) came up in our discussion of Roe v. Wade as a case that was somewhat overturned by Roe, which has been dealt a fatal blow this week (I tend to avoid politics on here because we're all here to read books, however, this framed my context by which I read this book). But to focus specifically,

To be honest, I thought this review would go in a different direction but I got to writing and this is what stuck with me. However, I will not leave this review having failed to discuss the interwoven memoir found here. At first, I was confused why the hell Miller found her muse/role model in an old white former President of Stanford who was obsessed with fish. But in truth, this wasn't a matter of having a role model but being able to find the positives of someone (the fish) and the failings (eugenics, etc.) that permeate everyone. Miller attempts to reconcile the nihilistic philosophy of her father and her own hope and depression for the future. In the process, she wrote a book that touched my soul and made me cry because it gave me hope... in the similarities of our siblings and our mutual identity as a bisexual woman. At 20 years old, this book reminds us to have a drive for the future but also to be realistic about the fact that life will be hard.

An unexpected 5 stars for the "fish" and the bis.
Profile Image for Megan O'Hara.
179 reviews53 followers
January 8, 2021
hmmm...this whole book....is about a eugenicist and it tries to bury the lede and shock you that he is one of the most prominent American eugenicists of all time??? seems like something you would find out, say, googling him and not after mapping some weird life plan over this template set by this man who you can tell sucks before the big *reveal".... but regardless of any of that (🤨) it's full of forced themes, overwrought metaphors, and I cannot believe it is book length given this story probably could have been told in 10 pages. reminded me of Devil in the White City because I fucking hate hearing about somebody's eye color or some shit over and over in what is in some sense supposed to be historical and also journalism?

in sum: hate hate loathe entirely
Profile Image for jasmine sun.
139 reviews156 followers
January 22, 2021
lulu miller is more writer than historian. this book - and history - suffers for it.

this book is structured in a strange way. each chapter peels back a different facet of jordan's life analogized to her own, though neither are told chronologically. the first half of the book paints jordan as a quirky but sympathetic character, until a sudden descent into covering up jane stanford's murder and advocating for forced sterilization.

here's the problem: jordan was a eugenicist and white supremacist the whole time. from his first academic job at IU to his presidency at stanford, jordan railed against "unfit genes" polluting "the Anglo-Saxon race." even seemingly redeeming or innocuous aspects, like his religion or his pacificism, ultimately served his white supremacy: jordan disliked war because it decimated the "fittest" of the white male genes.

miller's storytelling requires her to first humanize jordan to the reader, aside from his obsession with categorizing fish, then show how this desire for Order caused his eugenicist views. even in the later part, she describes his distaste for the "unfit," but conveniently skips over his stance that the white race was the fittest. but this is ahistorical: centuries before jordan was born, the taxonomies and methods of western science were invented to justify europeans' mental and physical superiority over those they colonized. jordan's racism doesn't prove the flaws with this scientific approach; rather, both phenomena stemmed from the same root cause (centuries of white supremacy). thus, she sacrifices historical accuracy for the sake of a character arc.

this book was also incredibly whitewashed. the chapter on his eugenicist views somehow barely mentioned race, and when it did, just suggested that discrimination against the "unfit" just happened to have racially disproportionate effects. yet eugenics was always a movement about race. racism was the motivation, not the consequence, of these beliefs. and the framing of "how could a little boy become so evil?" - plus the way miller compared jordan's childhood quirks to her own depression - reminded me of how mental health is always used to solicit empathy for white mass shooters. by framing his life this way, she turns systemic problems - the collusion of western racists and scientists - into psychological ones - jordan's refusal to accept that "we don't matter."

i was looking forward to this book a lot as a story of someone whose sins have disappeared into the shadows - his name was emblazoned across the stanford psych building until 2020. instead, i'm disappointed that this book is how he'll live in the popular consciousness.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
June 25, 2020
Her life unraveling, a failed suicide attempt, and NPR reporter Lulu Miller finds herself searching for a way out of the chaos of her life. She becomes fascinated with David Starr Jordan, a taxidermist, who spent his life up to then, collecting and labeling fish. He traveled the world to find as many different examples, it was his life's work. A collection he would lose most of in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. What fascinated Miller was that he didn't give up, he saved what he could, found a new, secure way of labeling and went on. How could a person be that optimistic?

She started researching his life and found more than she bargained for, Jordan was not quite the upstanding person she originally thought. Successful yes, he became the first President of Standford University. He suffered personal losses and continued on. He was though, a believer of eugenics, the pilot program for Hitler's final solution. Some startling information on this program and how long it lasted. He would also become embroiled in a murder mystery.

Part memoir, part biography, part a look at our past history, this was a well written and unusual story.
As far as why fish don't exist, you'll have to read and find the answer yourself.

ARC from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews658 followers
May 17, 2021
When I give up the fish, I get, at long last, that thing I had been searching for: a mantra, a trick, a prescription for hope. I get the promise that there are good things in store. Not because I deserve them. Not because I worked for them. But because they are as much a part of Chaos as destruction and loss. Life, the flip side of death. Growth, of rot.
Why Fish Don’t Exist is one part memoir, one part discussion of science and its history, and one part biography of David Starr Jordan. Jordan lived a rather remarkable life as a scientist and taxonomist who later became the first President of Stanford University. Yet during his life, he relentlessly overcame the personal losses of his brother, a wife, a daughter, and professional losses as his original records and sample collections were destroyed by a fire in the 1890s, and then destroyed again by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

After her personal life fell apart, the author Lulu Miller begins to research Mr. Jordan to try to understand how he persevered when all seemed lost. As you’d suspect, she finds her answer to how Jordan thrived. What was unexpected was that—at the end of this long search—she largely rejects his answer. While she agrees that his sense of grit and a little bit of positive illusions, i.e. self delusion, were beneficial, she concludes that Jordan’s answer involved a failure to appreciate that his acceptance of Darwinism required giving up his belief that humanity was at the top of a hierarchical ladder and, even worse, a belief in eugenics. Yikes.

Instead, she concludes that people should go on living no matter what because the history of science has shown again and again how little we understand about the world around us. Jordan spent his life cataloguing fish by evolutionary closeness, unwittingly setting in motion the realization among scientists that “fish” isn’t a legitimate category of creature at all.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is a quick read, enhanced by Ms. Miller’s light conversational writing style. Although occasionally treading on heavier subjects (Ms. Miller’s attempted suicide, and I didn’t even mention that Jordan may have gotten away with murder!), it is an optimistic book ultimately about finding hope in the darkness. Recommended, especially to people with an interest in science, but really to anyone going through a difficult time and looking for something hopeful.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,520 reviews9,007 followers
May 3, 2023
This book gave hot mess without the hot part, saying that as kindly as I can! In Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller writes about the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who she developed an obsessive interest with after a difficult time in her personal life. Unfortunately I found it difficult to immerse myself in this book because I found Miller’s writing style vague and melodramatic. To me, it gave the vibe of “this writing is intended to elicit big emotions from you” instead of letting the quality or concision of her writing do that for her. I also didn’t find her writing about David Starr Jordan fascinating at all. All the facts about him felt heavy-handed and uninteresting to me, and the message she intended to communicate through sharing about his life came across as too simplistic. I wish Miller had included more in-depth self-reflection in this book; for example, she writes early on about cheating on her romantic partner, yet I didn’t get a solid sense of why that happened, her internal landscape surrounding that choice aside from emotions of guilt, or what drew her to David Starr Jordan in the first place, aside from that he also experienced what could be called a tragedy.

Anyway, to avoid being too much of a Negative Nigel I also wanted to share some memoirs I loved and would recommend instead of this one in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Month! Though of course we should read books by people of color during all months. Here are some titles: Stay True by Hua Hsu, The Body Papers by Grace Talusan, Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran, Tastes Like War by Grace Cho, and House of Sticks by Ly Tran.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
811 reviews1,269 followers
September 1, 2021
"Chaos is the only sure thing in this world."

I am thankful I learned what this book is about before opening it, rather than just reading it based on the cover. I'd have been disappointed if I'd thought I was going to read a scientific book about fish - er.... non-fish? - and encountered details about the author's personal life and that of taxonomist David Starr Jordan. When I read a science book, I want scientific facts and scientific facts alone.

Why Fish Don't Exist isn't that. Instead, it is a brilliant medley of biography, memoir, science, history of eugenics, and philosophy of life.

Author Lulu Miller writes beautifully and passionately. She is at times witty, at others philosophical. This is her search for meaning in a universe without meaning, in a universe ruled by chaos.

She explores the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who is credited with discovering over 2,500 species of fish (though we also learn that he himself did not do much of the work, or even discovered them himself. Rather, he accepted credit that should have gone to people, mostly minorities, he had working for him).

As she learns more about this man whom she almost seems obsessed with, Ms Miller realizes he is not the perfect scientist and man she thought him to be. Instead, he was a top leader of the eugenics movement in the US and possibly a murderer.

Ms Miller discusses how what we think is true isn't always so. For instance, we humans have categorized most of the creatures living in the sea as fish and we now know that, scientifically, fish don't exist!

I won't tell you why. If you're curious, you should pick this book up for yourself. It is fascinating and fun to read.
Profile Image for Lexi (Reads and Riesling).
55 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2020
On the surface, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a biography of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered and named about 20% of the fish known to man. Miller highlights his entire life: from naming stars to naming fish. Jordan was a revolutionary. That’s not to say he did not have his flaws—he had MANY. He was an early proponent of eugenics and encouraged the government to enact legislation that would allow for the legal sterilization of individuals deemed “unfit.” I’m not sure about you, but I didn’t know the US practiced eugenics before Hitler got the idea. He also may have murdered the founding mother of Stanford University, so you know, there’s that.

Remember when I said this book was a biography of David Starr Jordan? Yeah, that’s not all. It’s Miller’s memoir. It’s a reckoning with chaos. It’s a pondering of the meaning of life. David Starr Jordan’s entire life was dedicated to bringing order to the chaos of the world. Miller explains that she found Jordan during a particularly tough time in her life. She was drawn to this man who made sense of the chaos. She needed to know her chaos could be sorted. We’ve all been there; it feels like everything is falling around you and you’re forced to just sit and watch the destruction and all you want is to know you’ll make it out the other side. Eventually, Miller finds that organizing the world feels productive, but small boxes hide beauty. Taming the chaos leads to hidden complexity, dangerous practices (like eugenics), and missed opportunities. Why Fish Don’t Exist is a biography, a memoir, and a coming of age story. It is a beautiful treatise to letting go of our boxes and embracing the chaos.
Profile Image for Akansha.
7 reviews1 follower
April 19, 2020
For me, this book reads like a generous account of a problematic man, someone who doesn't seem to deserve the generosity bestowed on it by the ‘smitten biographer.’ Admittedly, the author does remark on the fraught legacy of her subject matter towards the end of her story in phrases like:

“That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live. An uncaring world with no sense of cosmic justice encoded anywhere in its itchy, meaningless fabric.”

“The category “fish” doesn’t exist. That category of creature so precious to David, the one that he turned to in times of trouble, that he dedicated his life to seeing clearly, was never there at all” (wherein she highlights the cosmic justice of such an incident).

But these acknowledgements comes too late and are too little. I do understand that this book is part memoir and thus, the narrative unfolds as a personal struggle wherein the author tries to overcome her idealization of David Starr Jordan. But in my opinion, that ends up doing an injustice to the story, especially in the following areas: -

*Role in covering up a sex scandal*

When remarking about Jordan’s involvement in covering up a case of, at best, a sex scandal and, at worst, a possible sexual assault, we are given this glorious paragraph, “It had been Charley Gilbert’s fault. Good old Charley Gilbert. His student turned traveling companion turned chair of Stanford’s zoology department. Charley, long-healed from his hiking accident, long-married, had begun an affair with a young Stanford woman. He and the woman were discovered one day by a librarian, who came to David demanding that Charley be fired for such impropriety. But David did not want to lose Charley from his ranks—that “brilliant” taxonomic mind!—so David, thinking on his feet, threatened the librarian with “ incarceration in the insane asylum for sexual perversity” (often code for homosexuality) if he breathed a word of it to anyone else. That succeeded in shutting the librarian up—he quit Stanford, left town.”

The sheer number of problems with this paragraph! Firstly, absolving Jordan of any guilt by use of the phrase ‘It had been Charley Gilbert’s fault,’ and secondly, completely glossing over his misuse of power in this incident.

And this could possibly be justified if the book read as a dispassionate biography but it is NOT a dispassionate biography.

*Commenting on Jordan’s involvement in the Eugenics movements*

When the author first hint at Jordan’s underlying belief in Eugenic ideology it is through this paragraph- “Louis Agassiz, of course. The statue had actually been the Stanfords’ idea—they had long admired Agassiz’s teaching philosophies—but David was overjoyed. It didn’t seem to bother him that by the time the statue was commissioned, Agassiz’s image was anything but pure. Not only had Agassiz failed to accept the theory of evolution (the mark of a scientific fool by that point), but his faith in a natural hierarchy had empowered him to advance one of the most hateful and destructive fallacies in scientific history. Till his dying day, Agassiz was one of the country’s loudest proponents of the idea of polygenism—the belief that races are different species, and that black people, in particular, were subhuman. He lectured widely and forcefully on the topic. When consulted by the Lincoln administration during the Civil War, for example, he had given his opinion that blacks, if freed, should be segregated from whites, because they would never be able to live peacefully among them. Citing bunk measures and imaginary ranks, Agassiz asserted that black people were biologically “unfit” for civilization. It wasn’t their fault, he said, it was simply a matter of science: they were too “childlike” and “sensuous” and “playful” by nature. Too low on that immutable ladder of life.”

And then when Agassiz’s statue is tossed head first into the ground due to an earthquake, the author doesn’t remark on the poetic justice of  the situation but instead remarks with lines like- “To me, there is no clearer message: Chaos reigns,” and “It is now that I would have given up. My prophet desecrated, my dream shattered, decades of persistence proved futile, I would have headed for the basement to give in, at long last, to the great temptation.”

When latter after 3/4th of the book is over and the author finally dedicates a chapter telling us that this belief in eugenics is wrong, personally, it rings hallow to me. Especially when in the very next chapter, we are offered these glorious paragraphs-

“Looking at the full spread of David’s emotional anatomy, the most obvious culprit seems to be that thick “shield of optimism” he was so proud to possess. He had “ a terrifying capacity for convincing himself that what he wanted was right,” writes scholar Luther Spoehr, who was struck by how David’s certainty in himself, his self-delusion and hardheadedness, only seemed to intensify over the years.”


“Perhaps that group of psychologists had been right, the ones who warned that positive illusions can ferment into a vicious thing if left unchecked, capable of striking out against anything that stands in our way. But could that have explained all of it? How hard David was able to push his eugenics agenda, how far? Overconfidence, grit, and pride make a dangerous cocktail, surely, but they didn’t seem to fully account for how rabidly he devoted himself to the cause of genetic cleansing.”

As if all of this was not a result of prejudices marrying power and could be simply played off as justification of dangers of positive illusion. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT!?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gail C..
348 reviews
March 25, 2020
When I first opened this book, I was expecting more of a biography on the life and studies of taxonomist and former Stanford University President David Starr Jordan. His work in classifying fish was groundbreaking in his day, marred by the destruction of many of his exhibits in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Once I began reading, I discovered much more. There were many details about David Starr Jordan and his work, at times perhaps more than I would have liked. However, the details were given in the context of the author’s own unraveling world. Indeed, she says she started the book seeking answers to her own bouts of depression. She had heard the story of Jordan and wondered what kept him motivated, what caused him to start again in the face of scientific devastation? She outlines some of the situations which created her own emotional turmoil and her hopes for what she would find by studying Jordan’s efforts.
In the middle of the book, the book becomes more of a memoir. Her own experiences of love, loss, and eventually, love again. Her bouts with depression, questions of what contributed to it, and how she might overcome it. In the process of examining her own life and it’s turn around, the book morphs again into a possible self-help type guide where someone inclined might find inspiration to move forward in their own life.
This was an interesting book, and one I would recommend to any reader looking for something complex or a little different. The research Miller conducted in order to write details of Jordan’s life was extensive and there are pages upon pages of references for anyone who is interested in using it or others she details to write a research based paper. There is also some intrigue offered, particularly into the death of Stanford’s co-founder Jane Stanford, in case the reader is looking for a little mystery. While at times I wanted to put the book down for a while, becoming overwhelmed with data, it wasn’t long before I found myself picking it back up again, wondering where it was going to go next.
My thanks to Simon and Schuster Publishers and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an objective review.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books376 followers
January 7, 2022
This book is a memoir. As an inspiration, the author focuses on naturalist David Starr Jordan, who was a world expert on fish. She admired his grit and determination and the success in his field. He was also the President of Stanford and a suspect in the murder, by poison, of Jane Stanford, wife of Leland. He did have a grudge against Jane, given that she threatened to fire him. Her death was timely in that regard. But the author only discovered belatedly that David Starr Jordan was the founder of the American eugenics society, something I've been aware for a long time.

Someone who knew Jordan well said: "he had a terrifying capacity for convincing himself that what he wanted was right." This became a problem when he misinterpreted Darwin. He believed in something he called "degeneration"

"He believed immobile creatures like sea squirts and barnacles had once been higher forms of fish and crabs but had “degenerated” back into lazier, weaker, less complex, less intelligent forms of life, as a result of acquiring resources parasitically. More broadly, he believed that any kind of long-term aid to a creature would result in its eventual physical and cognitive decline. He called this misunderstanding of how nature works “animal pauperism.” So he would alert the public to the dangers of charity, causing, as he believed it did, “the survival of the unfittest.” And recommend the extermination of these “crétins” as the only way to prevent against a worldwide “decay” of the human race."

One Albert Priddy took Jordan at his word.

"Priddy was the slick-haired doctor in charge of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was a zealous eugenicist, known for having sterilized women for being “man-crazy,” having “wanderlust,” telling “coarse stories,” and even passing notes in class. In 1917, he had been sued by a man named George Mallory for sterilizing his wife and daughter while Mallory had been traveling for work. Dr. Priddy’s justification? That a house full of women with no man in charge must have been a brothel."

In 2007, a historian from the University of Michigan, Alexandra Minna Stern, discovered a set of microfilm reels in an old file cabinet in a government office in Sacramento. On them was a sort of eugenics registry— the names and demographic information of every person sterilized in David Starr Jordan’s adopted home of California from 1919 to 1952. The list was nearly 20,000 people long.

Stern spent years analyzing the records with a team, and together they’ve been able to fill in the picture of what ��unfit” really meant, what kinds of people lived inside that category. As Stern writes, those deemed unfit were “often were young women pronounced promiscuous; the sons and daughters of Mexican, Italian, and Japanese immigrants… and men and women who transgressed sexual norms.” Other studies have shown how women of color were disproportionately targeted for sterilization. The US government has admitted to forcefully sterilizing over 2,500 Native American women in the early 1970s. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina sought out and sterilized hundreds of black women during the 1960s and 1970s. And approximately a third of all Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the US government between 1933 and 1968.

The reality is that nearly half of the states still allow for involuntary sterilization of people deemed unfit, only now they use words like “mentally incompetent” or “mentally deficient.” Meanwhile, forced sterilization continues to be performed in the “quiet way” all over the country. Much of it remains undocumented and hard to catch— coercive sterilizations in low-income hospitals, meth clinics, prisons, institutions for people with disabilities, and beyond— but big cases come to light every few years. Over the period of 2006 to 2010, for example, nearly 150 women were illegally sterilized in California prisons, without the women’s consent and occasionally without their knowledge.

Jordan's Eugenics program had a direct effect on the Nazis, who executed on his ideas. This aspect is covered much better in this article than in the book...



How the program continued in California prisons....



Information on a documentary about....



A companion volume of sorts. The author does not say so in the book, but he did say publicly he thought Jordan was guilty.

Profile Image for Quirine.
71 reviews1,573 followers
September 24, 2022
Genuinely one of the best books I ever read. It’s about the power of words, and the danger that power has to minimize and limit our view of the world. It’s about science, and how we can only move forward if we keep doubting everything we think we know. It’s about humans, and how we will miss so many great things around us as long as we will keep viewing ourselves as a superior species. Most of all, it’s about love and the beauty we can find in the Chaos this world has to offer us.
Profile Image for Mimi.
699 reviews198 followers
January 10, 2023
It's weird to read memoirs by people who aren't famous or at least well known to me. So why did I pick this one up? It was a recommendation from one of the librarians at a local branch whom I'd gotten to know a little over the past couple of months. We've been trading recommendations back and forth, and so far, it's been an interesting reading experiment. Not all were hits, but they got me out of many slumps when I couldn't read. Anything. At all.

What made me give this memoir a try, out of several on the librarian's list, was how she said it helped her deal with the aftermath of 2020 and then it helped her through the rest of 2021.

Memoirs don't have quite the same effect on me as fiction, or more specifically genre fiction, but I wanted to give this memoir a try because of what the librarian said--that it helped her.

* * * * *

Unfortunate update re: David Starr Jordan

This is one of those books that, in my humble opinion, should come with a content warning because one of the main subjects of the book (Jordan, not the author Lulu Miller) is a eugenicist who proudly supported segregation and racial purity. He was fairly well known back in his day too, for that and for being the founding president of Stanford University. Not sure if these two things are mutually exclusive though.

Anyway. I'm on the fence when it comes to trigger and content warnings, and I see the value of all sides of this ongoing discussion. But. Where I stand now, right at this moment, is all memoirs featuring a known eugenicist in this capacity should be upfront about said eugenicist on the cover or title or intro or notes or whatever. Put it right where people can see at a glance and let them decide if they want to read further. Don't hide it deep in the text and spring it on me when I'm just reading along and minding my own business.

I don't hold it against the librarian who recommended this memoir to me because the memoir itself is not about who David Starr Jordan was. It's about losing one's life's work, not once but twice, and having to rebuild from the ground up with your bare hands which was what happened to Jordan. His extensive collection of fish specimens and documents were destroyed in two separate fires, and he had had to rebuild it each time. The point of this memoir, I think, is where do you find the strength and energy to do that, instead of giving up and abandoning it all to the fires.

But knowing who Jordan was and what his life's other works were about... really does color one's opinion of him and this memoir. I can't separate him from that... other thing.

It's ironic to me that a fish biologist is a eugenicist because... OK, fine... it's fucking hilarious, but only in relation to this memoir and why Miller was drawn to him and his work with fish.

* * * * *

I have not finished this book, and unlike the other book I'm still hanging onto, I don't know if I'll ever finish reading this book. Stalled really hard, like full stop almost pitched forward in my seat stalled, when the eugenicist thing was revealed.

I do like Lulu Miller's writing though, and the memoir itself, minus the parts featuring the eugenicist, is good. A really engaging read with major caveats. However, I don't think it's good enough to recommend to anyone I know even if I think they might like it for the fish stuff or the research stuff or the mending your life after big upheavals stuff. Too bad, really.

* * * * *

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to finish this book, especially in light of everything going on right now. The last thing I want to do right now at the end of the day is return to a book (or anything, really) that features a eugenicist so prominently and written in such a trite, callous manner.

This is the last time I try a memoir by someone I'm not familiar with. Lesson learned.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,451 reviews177 followers
April 18, 2020
“When I give up the fish, I get, at long last, that thing I had been searching for: a mantra, a trick, a prescription for hope. I get the promise that there are good things in store. Not because I deserve them. Not because I worked for them. But because they are as much a part of Chaos as destruction and loss. Life, the flip side of death. Growth, of rot.”

Incandescent! I read ravenously; Lulu Miller’s winsome prose is addictive. The complicated story of scientist David Starr Jordan merges with Miller’s own life and years of grappling with Chaos. As anyone who has listened to her radio work knows, she is a reporter and writer with seemingly infinite stores of empathy and creativity, and all of her gifts are on display in this remarkable book. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,173 reviews8,389 followers
November 5, 2022
A wonderful blend of science, history and memoir. The audiobook was incredible (and only 5 hours!). Cannot recommend this one enough, to pretty much any and all readers!
5 reviews
June 24, 2020
Words cannot express how much I hated this book. The author seems tone deaf to every marginalized community that exists, and it's infuriating. Her personal story line made me empathetic at first, and then it just pissed me off. I've never thrown a book out as soon as I finished it, but here we are. That being said, if you're white and able-bodied, you might enjoy it. My one star is for my new knowledge of "fish" not existing. I did like that part.
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
202 reviews159 followers
August 8, 2020
Gave up halfway. This might have worked as an hourlong episode of Radiolab, packed with forced scientific wonder and self-indulgent millennial quirkiness, but falls utterly flat on the printed page. Desperately needed surgical editing. Especially for sentence fragments.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews594 followers
October 12, 2021
What David Starr Jordan set in motion by practicing the art of taxonomy, by following Darwin’s advice to sort creatures by evolutionary closeness, led to a fateful discovery. In the 1980s taxonomists realized that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.
Birds exist.
Mammals exist.
Amphibians exist.
But fish, in particular, do not exist.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one of those memoirs dressed up as an historical investigation, and in the moment, I was completely fascinated by everything Lulu Miller wanted to tell me about her life, what she uncovered about the life of David Starr Jordan (early Ichthyologist and founding President of Stanford University), and how those two lives chimed and clanged together when held up side by side. Miller’s voice is colloquial and chummy, but also philosophical and thoughtful, and I was repeatedly enchanted by her turns of phrase. All of that reflects my reaction in the moment; Miller is a gifted storyteller. But when it was over, it nagged at me that Miller might have been manipulating her narrative in order to conform to a traditional story arc — I doubt very much that Miller didn’t know that Jordan was until the point in her story that she tells us so — and so I felt a bit manipulated in the end. That doesn’t change the facts of this narrative — all of which I was fascinated to learn — and it doesn’t change the enchantment I felt in the moment — Miller is a very good storyteller — but it nags at me all the same. More loved than not, I’m rounding up to four caveated stars.

What words go here?
Imagine seeing thirty years of your life undone in one instant. Imagine whatever it is you do all day, whatever it is you care about, whatever you foolishly pick and prod at each day, hoping, against all signs that suggest otherwise, that it matters. Imagine finding all the progress you have made on that endeavor smashed and eviscerated at your feet.
Those words go here.

David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) was a prolific taxonomist (discovering and naming nearly a fifth of the fish from around the world known in his times) who was influenced equally by his Puritan upbringing (and belief that order could be discovered within the chaos of God’s creation) and by Charles Darwin (who encouraged biologists to take a scalpel to their specimens in order to discover how systemic similarities reflect relationships on the web of life). Jordan was so successful at collecting unique species, and so busy in his professional life, that by the time he became the first President of Stanford University, his office contained thousands of named, but unrecorded, specimens in jars. And when the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 smashed his entire collection, the story has it that Jordan gritted his teeth and went to work, salvaging what he could and more permanently attaching name tags to those specimens that he recognised.

Maybe Cape Cod is fertile ground for existential transformation. Something about the metals in its sandy soil catalyzing metaphysical shifts — I don’t know. All I know is I, too, had my entire worldview rearranged when I was visiting its shores. It happened when I was about seven years old, and oddly enough, it was that moment that would pave the way for my obsession with David Starr Jordan, that would make him the kind of person I hoped could save me when my life later unraveled.

By contrast, Lulu Miller was raised by her biologist father to be an atheist and to believe that there is no order to the chaos of life; that, in the big picture, her existence mattered very little. Prone to depression and self-harm, when Miller blows up her life as a young adult, it was the anecdote about Jordan getting to work salvaging his collection that gave her own life some sudden purpose; Miller needed to understand what made this man carry on in the face of such overwhelming devastation. As Miller would eventually learn, Jordan wrote prolifically throughout his life (from children’s stories to class syllabi), and Miller plumbs it all for clues, eventually sketching out the entire life of the man and finding ways to make it chime and contrast with her own (in the footnotes of some academic work, Miller even discovers Jordan referencing the one Darwin quote that her own father had framed on his office wall. Significant!) Unflattering information is eventually revealed about Jordan and Miller gloats that it is a fitting karmic retribution (not that she believes in such things) that he spent his life categorising fish, and as a category, they no longer officially exist.

If fish don’t exist, what else do we have wrong? Slow dawning for me, a scientist’s daughter, but when I give up the fish, I realize that science itself is flawed. Not the beacon toward truth I had always thought it was, but a blunt tool that can wreak a lot of havoc along the way.

In the end, I think that Lulu Miller wanted to talk about herself more than she wanted to talk about David Starr Jordan, and that’s not entirely terrible: her story, her work, her family, it’s all interesting. And the information that she divulges about Jordan’s life and work was also interesting, and new, to me (I did not go into this anticipating the negative revelations so I didn’t bristle at Miller’s setup of him as a respected scientist and academic). I was also fascinated to learn that fish don’t exist; how have I not heard that before? A thoroughly enjoyable read in the moment, with a few nagging quibbles after the fact.
Profile Image for Kerry.
837 reviews101 followers
August 29, 2022
5 stars, I'd give it 10 stars. A book even as I finish it I know I will never forget. One I just want to inhale and have much of what I read become part of my own DNA. Had to buy the book so I can look back at it at my leisure whenever I feel my own self taking the natural world around me for granted. This is a book about: a woman looking for life's meaning, as scientist in the early 20th century looking to name and order the natural world, a world renown university, its beginnings and its unsolved mystery, a book about finding unexpected love and so much more. In its 195 pages it is so much more than all those things. I've often wondered how man thought about the world in the time before language, how they wondered at all around them without having names to apply to everything. We who are so full of words and names that it is hard, impossible in this day and age to even try in our futile way to have a grasp of the constant information given to us in words. Now when we hear continuously to follow the science. This was a breath of fresh air

"The work of science is to peer beyond the "convenient" lines we draw over nature. To peer beyond intuition, where something wilder lives. To know that in every organism at which you gaze, is a complexity you will never comprehend."

This is true for the labels we give to others as well as the forms of nature all around us.
"...the idea that once you name something, you tend to stop looking at it."

This is such a good book, one I hope many will read. I know without a doubt that it will hold up as a favorite of mine.
Thanks to my BookTube friends for this recommendation.
Profile Image for Catherine.
Author 6 books41 followers
April 10, 2021
Ok, we don't study the Holocaust as an exemplum of train efficiency. Likewise, we shouldn't study eugenicists to laude their perseverance. It's offensive.
Profile Image for Mishelle.
166 reviews17 followers
January 9, 2023
Can't say why I don't like it without spoiling you. But the "twist" is the first thing that comes up when you google search the subject matter, rendering the entire lens through which the story is told, disingenuous. You don't google Hitler and get articles about his paintings first!
Profile Image for Sîvan Sardar.
117 reviews1,268 followers
June 1, 2023
The writing style is so lyrical, and so beautiful, I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this start to finish, I didn’t want it to end. The pacing, in all honesty, threw me off and it was the main component as to why I couldn’t rate it a 5 stars, but the ending alone solidifies this book as one I will remember for a very long time

Also, fish don’t exist. Like, seriously.
Profile Image for Barbara K..
429 reviews87 followers
August 20, 2022
No struggles to find the right rating for this book - it easily earns 5 stars.

At a low point in her life, struggling with the consequences of an impulsive action that she feels has ruined all chances for happiness in her future, LuLu Miller searches for that silver bullet, that idea or philosophy or approach to life that will allow her to carry on. She thinks she may have found it in the life of David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist who carried on without missing a beat after losing a collection of hundreds of specimens in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. What was his secret? What form of inner strength kept him from giving in to despair?

The path Miller takes as she searches for this answer unfolds in three ways. First, a re-evaluation of her own life, of the validity of beliefs she has held close, some since childhood, others about more recent events. Second, a probe into the life and achievements of Jordan, attempting to tease out a relationship between his drive and accomplishments, and his own belief system. And third, an exploration of the scientific view and public opinion regarding issues ranging from the mental health benefits of maintaining an overly inflated opinion of oneself, to the political and social history of eugenics, with an ongoing commentary about scientific taxonomy.

She braids these themes together using a natural, easy flow, without signaling in advance her conclusions. Key elements of Jordan's life and work are revealed slowly, chronologically, gradually building to the inescapable truth that he holds no answers for her. But she finds answers elsewhere along her journey through his life.

Miller is a science reporter for NPR; she is adept at presenting scientific concepts succinctly. The book just works really well. My thanks to Jenna for the positive review that led me to this little gem.

p.s. In the book Miller makes a strong argument that Stanford University should no longer venerate Jordan (its first president), given his questionable actions and the abhorrent opinions he promoted later in his life. Less than six months after the book was published the Stanford News webpage posted this headline "Stanford will rename campus spaces named for David Starr Jordan and relocate statue depicting Louis Agassiz". :-)
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