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Publisher's Summary

A Best Book of 2020:

  • The Washington Post 
  • NPR
  • Chicago Tribune 
  • Smithsonian

A "remarkable" (Los Angeles Times), "seductive" (The Wall Street Journal) debut from the new cohost of Radiolab, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a dark and astonishing tale of love, chaos, scientific obsession, and - possibly - even murder.​

"At one point, Miller dives into the ocean into a school of fish...comes up for air, and realizes she’s in love. That’s how I felt: Her book took me to strange depths I never imagined, and I was smitten." (The New York Times Book Review)

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 1,000 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 that 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 is a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.

©2020 Lulu Miller (P)2020 Simon & Schuster Audio

Critic Reviews

“Lulu Miller's friendly, curious voice braids together history, biography, and memoir. The former host of the NPR podcast 'Invisibilia' introduces listeners to taxonomist and former Stanford president David Starr Jordan, famous for his work classifying fish. Initially, Miller is inspired by Jordan because he personifies resilience after his life's work seems to have been destroyed by an earthquake. But she also uncovers his darker side while researching. Miller has a slightly husky down-to-earth voice, and her storytelling background in radio infuses her work. Her confident delivery is playful and comfortably paced, her narration engaging and easy on the ear. When Miller deals with subjects like depression and loss in her own life, it's especially meaningful knowing she's experienced the stories and insights she shares.” (AudioFile magazine)

"What a delightful book.... Ms. Miller wields [Radiolab’s] familiar format with panache, spinning a tale so seductive that I read her book in one sitting." (The Wall Street Journal)

"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

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What listeners say about Why Fish Don't Exist

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

If fish don't exist, do stars matter?

I almost never write reviews. In fact, according to Audible, this is my first one, although I'm pretty sure I may have written one or two on the paper book side of things. But I had such a strong reaction to this book that I thought I had to say something. This book gets mostly outstanding ratings. I decided to purchase it because Bookshop Santa Cruz gave a strong recommendation for it, and most of the reviews were quite glowing. And I get it, the story is mostly an intriguing and thoughtful one, It's a little slow-going at first, but it turns into a neatly woven tail about an eccentric man with a quirky and somewhat compelling life story, the science of categorizing species (and other things), the author's personal search for meaning, all mixed in with an honest and personal philosophical discourse on reality and the meaning of life. And in regards to the audiobook, the performance (by the author herself) is quite engaging.

So why 2 stars?

Because the conclusion is so infuriatingly shallow (in my opinion) for one that, by the middle of the story, seemed to be gathering steam for some glorious denouement. The author, who begins the book recounting her father essentially telling her that life is meaningless, starts to unravel insights into the complexity of character traits like "grit" and self-esteem (sometimes good and sometimes bad), and the interconnectedness of nature and people and the value of all human life, even those deemed "unfit." She then starts to make intriguing insights into the nature of how our brains work and how we may limit our thinking by creating artificial categories (not just in categorizing plants and animals and other life forms, but in how we categorize people and other things as well), and why it can be so difficult to un-categorize them in our minds even when the evidence clearly debunks the validity of the categorization. So far so good.

But then she concludes that categories should be "torn down," because they can be "shackles," especially those about "moral and mental standing." She has already admitted that she is an atheist, but one who at times wants to believe that the universe or "Nature" has a moral compass and a sense of justice, even though she knows that could not be true based on the worldview category that she lives in. She has already dismissed one celebrated character in her story because of his lack of belief in Darwinism, and she ultimately tears down the man who would seem to be the protagonist in the story for his seemingly moral failures. She decries the eugenics movement, while celebrating Darwin for his belief that all creatures had potential value in propagating life, since some seemingly innocuous trait could prove evolutionarily valuable (but also overlooking the fact that most of these creatures become extinct despite their inherent beauty or gifts, or lack thereof, because of the harsh reality of life in a world forged by natural selection). In the end, it seems that the main reason for believing that categories should be destroyed, especially those regarding morality, is because part of her struggle was not living comfortably in the sexual category she found herself in. And when she removed the barriers of that sexual category (that some would consider immoral), she felt unshackled to apparently live out those desires, and to enjoy a relationship with someone who satisfied some of those desires. So whereas she seemed to be heading toward a better, more hopeful, understanding of why humanity matters, why morality matters (and perhaps where this morality might come from), and really, just how complex humans really are, and yet why even the least of us have some inherent value to celebrate, her journey through all of this concludes with her building up categories that she deems morally valuable, while tearing down those that seem only to shackle her desires. This is an all too common theme for some atheists who do not think that atheism is a category, religion, or worldview, and instead simply take atheism as the undeniable fact from which all understanding must be derived, even though this essentially limits everything to the category of atheism and excludes all other possibilities. And this all too often seems to lead to worshipping themselves as their own gods, solely able to delineate right from wrong (if it even exists), yet finding ways to recategorize anything that might hinder their freedom to satisfy their own desires. I don't see much hope in that, and I don't sense that author is so sure there is either.

So I how do I categorize this book? I guess i shouldn't. Does it even really matter? But I give the book 4 stars for the story and the performance, 5 stars for grabbing my attention even if it was not in the way I wanted it to, and 0 stars for the conclusion. I categorize that as a 2 star audiobook. (And I still find value in thinking that fish actually do exist!)

75 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Inspiring in a completely unexpected way

In the description of this book on Audible, it claims to offer a way forward for those of us who feel stuck. It says it will show you “how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.” In my search for books that could inspire me and keep me motivated, in spite of how hell-bent the world seems to be on keeping me in the status quo, this book appeared to promise what I needed.

I was essentially finished listening to it, when I believed it had not come through on that promise. It went to entirely different places that I had not even remotely anticipated. Even so, I really enjoyed the book. I loved that, in spite of what seemed to me (very much not a scientist) a ridiculous title, the author proved it true, which I found very enlightening. And then, in the epilogue, everything came together. The message of hope was there, loud and clear, the reasons to trudge on against seemingly insurmountable odds was revealed. A more astute reader may have picked up on it sooner, but for me it took Lulu Miller explaining it to me. And I’m glad she did.

Along with this message is an invitation to those who have closed their minds and stubbornly hold to false beliefs that either hurt them or hurt society. Open your mind and question everything. Because ultimately, it’s true, fish do not exist. Your confident beliefs are wrong. And that is actually freeing. Who’d have thought that not confidence, but doubt is the way forward?

On a side note, I do recommend the audiobook, if for nothing else but the added little bonus at the end for listeners only. It made me smile. Shish, indeed.

29 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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5 Stars 5 Emeralds 5 Rubies

1) Thank you.
2) Please write a shit ton more.
3) You are the best narrator.

26 people found this helpful

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a sliver of content smothered in commentary

There's very little historical or biographical information in this book. it's mainly a vehicle for the author to expound morale virtue upon common knowledge atrocities, hold historical figures to modern moral standards and dish out stereotypical modern self-loathing guilt.

21 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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A Wonderful Ride

I don't usually write book reviews. Here I am, writing one for this absolute ride. Lulu will lift you up repeatedly, then, in the most loving way an author can, let you freefall until she catches you and does it again. There are so many important lessons to take away from every chapter, so many moments to learn healthy skepticism, to learn balance, to immerse yourself in experience and recognize how you are constructing it.

Absolutely wonderful. This is a must-listen. Thank you Lulu.

14 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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wonderful intersection of science and humanity.

What a thoughtful, touching, smart book. I loved it. Don't usually do well with audio books, because I find it hard to keep my attention, but this one captivated me. Worth listening to again because the ideas are complex, and it is worth thinking about how to apply them to our own lives. Will send it to my young adult sons, and to my parents. Can't imagine anyone who would not benefit from this read.

10 people found this helpful

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A wonderful listen

A thoughtful biography interwoven with a memoir, Lulu Miller has the skill and voice for reading her own words. I cried my way through it and wished there was more when it was done.

7 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Part science part philosophy part hope

If you are a little part scientist and a little part philosopher or wonderer you will love this book. In this trying time we live in it may even give you a little hope and a new way of seeing the world.

7 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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impossible to describe and impossible to put down

This was fantastic. I listened to it all in one day. Impossible to describe and impossible to put down

5 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Lulu from Invisibilia

I love the podcast invisibilia and was excited to listen to this book. Having it narrated by Lulu herself is a total gift and I so appreciate this contemplative, nerdy and soul searching book. More please!

3 people found this helpful