Episode 20: Why Fish Don’t Exist

Download Episode 20

In This Episode

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

Morning Chatter

  • Why aren’t we discussing The Splendid and the Vile yet?
  • What else have we been reading lately when we were supposed to be reading The Splendid and the Vile?
  • Reading: Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Watching: Gravity Falls, Ghosts, Space Sweepers

Why Fish Don’t Exist

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.


You matter, Reader.

“While other people don’t matter, either, treat them like they do.”
― Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

“Slowly, it came into focus. This small web of people keeping one another afloat. All these minuscule interactions- a friendly wave, a pencil sketch, some plastic beads strung up a nylon cord- they might not look like much from the outside, but for the people caught inside that web? They might be everything, the very tethers that keep one bound to this planet.”
― Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

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

Little known fact: If Lissa really loves you, she probably texts you screenshots from this app: Fish: a tap essay by Robin Sloan but if you don’t know her well enough for that yet, download it for yourself!

“The best way of ensuring you don’t miss them (the good things in store), these gifts, the trick that has helped me squint at the bleakness and see them more clearly, is to admit, with every breath, that you have no idea what you are looking at. To examine each object in the avalanche of Chaos with curiosity, with doubt.”
― Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

Discussion Questions for further thinking, because you will definitely want to read this and discuss it with you friends

Cheesecake, from the small web of people keeping one another afloat in Lissa’s life. This podcast is another obviously delicious example.

Coming Up

Next episode: Marian and Lissa read and discuss Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. For real this time. Not like the previous TWO episodes when we discussed other books after advertising that we would discuss the Erik Larson.

Pssst! Want to See Something Cool?

Marian’s first book A Little Touch of Magic is now available! There are fairies. Someone has a tail. Must be a fairytale. Buy it wherever books are sold, especially for the middle grade fantasy readers in your life.

Our Show Notes include mentions and recommendations, all linked for your convenience. What else would you like to see here? 

Music Credit: The music used during transitions in our podcast is adapted from: Jazzy Sax, Guitar, and Organ at the club by Admiral Bob (c) copyright 2018 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/58382 Ft: geoffpeters

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