Lulu Miller’s ‘Why Fish Don’t Exist’ is part memoir, part biography, and also social history. More importantly it’s a philosophical meditation on courage and perseverance in the face of the howling chaos of the universe and the human condition. Miller picks up the story of David Starr Jordan, a 19th century taxonomist obsessed with labeling and creating order out of the animal kingdom. The 1906 San Fransisco earthquake completely destroys his life’s work, yet he picks up the pieces and starts over. As the author records and considers her own personal and professional struggles, she moves between the story of David Starr Jordan’s continued optimism and her own attempts to rebuild her life. Each chapter is preceded with imaginative black and white scratchboard illustrations that evoke the Victorian time period. Jordan’s science was tied to the eugenicist vision of a hierarchy of beings, and the author does not gloss over the ugliness that resulted from this deeply flawed vision of life. You’ll just have to read it to find out how wrong Jordan was about fish.
review by Anna Wassenaar