Indy Book Club’s May Selection: ‘Why Fish Don’t Exist’

Lulu Miller’s Science-Meets-History Memoir Explores the Racist Life of David Starr Jordan

Credit: Courtesy

Content warning: This book contains descriptions of eugenics and sterilization.

Aside from the joy of snacks, the best part of being in a book club is listening to different points of view and hearing how others have interpreted a work of literature. After finishing Lulu Miller’s winding tale of science-meets-history-meets-memoir, I realized that I have yet to get to the best part: discussing it.

Miller, former host of NPR’s podcast Invisibilia, intermingles her own life’s journey with the biography of David Starr Jordan and the way in which she learned about this complicated historical figure whose early philosophies she had used as a guiding star during some of her life’s toughest moments. As Miller is writing the book, she learns about the darker parts of Jordan’s story, and the reader learns right along with her. 

Jordan was an accomplished 19th-century ichthyologist (fish biologist) who wrote about philosophy and the importance of scientific study of “the hidden and insignificant.” He was the first president of Stanford University, and also embodied and peddled white supremacist ideas, including eugenics, later in his life. As a reader, though, I question Miller’s assertion that learning the full story of a man who was Eurocentric, specist, and downright racist is a way to bring meaning and understanding to your internal life. 

If you have ever listened to Invisibilia, Why Fish Don’t Exist is like reading an extended version of a podcast episode. It asks big questions by following unexpected scientific musings to take the viewer on a surprising journey. Miller’s writing is concise and thoughtful, and the book is quite short, ending with a beautiful epiphany about the meaning of life and finding love. 

Join us for a hearty discussion of Why Fish Don’t Exist, a book rife with themes and topics for The Indy Book Club’s first in-person book club gathering on Thursday, June 3, at noon at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse’s Sunken Gardens. 


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