I couldn’t tell you why I started listening to Why Fish Don’t Exist. I must have heard it recommended somewhere, because it was on my audiobook app favorites list, so I gave it a try as something that looked entertaining, but didn’t seem like it would requite my full attention. Like a podcast! I certainly didn’t realize it was queer, or that it was about mental health and the meaning of life.
I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this one if you can, because the author is the cohost of Radiolab and cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, so this was a step above most audiobooks I listen to–it feels like it was made for that format. (Plus, there is an adorable audio bonus at the very end.)
This is ostensibly–at first–a biography of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered a huge chunk of the world’s known fish species. It begins with a story about Jordan, about how his life work was catalogued in glass containers containing specimens shelved in the hundreds in his office–and the earthquake that sent them tumbling down. Surrounded by hundreds of preserved fish, broken glass, and specimen labels scattered across the floor, Jordan searched the debris, found a fish and a label he recognized, and stitched it directly to the fish itself.
How does someone continue to find meaning even when chaos seems to claim everything, Miller asks. When she was a child, her scientific father told her there is no meaning in life: there’s no creator, no plan, and we are mere specks in an endless universe. As she grew up, she struggled with suicidal thoughts, and went looking for meaning that doesn’t require a belief in God. Perhaps, she reasons, Jordan has that answer. So she sets out to do a deep dive into his life, hoping that it will lead to greater understanding.
This is an impossible book to summarize, and I don’t want to spoil it for you–which isn’t something I thought I would say about a nonfiction book about fish taxonomy. It takes some twists and turns, and it is simultaneously: a biography of Jordan, a memoir of Miller’s search for meaning, a collection of trivia, and an exploration of chaos and order. Miller realizes that perhaps the urge to have neat categories for all things (and people) is something that should be pushed back on.
Miller’s queer identity isn’t the focus of most of this book, but it is an important undercurrent. This is a book about imagining the world–and your place in it–complexly, and realizing that it’s a much more weird, unpredictable, and beautiful place than you could have predicted. This is definitely one of my favourite audiobooks I’ve ever listened to.
Content warning: David Starr Jordan was a white supremacist. This is discussed later in the book.