A Search for Meaning

Lulu Miller’s novel explores human perseverance through history, science, and good storytelling.


photo by Kristen Kinzler

Why Fish Don’t Exist examines a scientist that history has placed on a pedestal.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

If you would have asked me to read a nonfiction book in my free time six months ago, I would have groaned and rolled my eyes. While I enjoy reading, I’ve always stuck to fiction, as I thought most of the excitement in novels came from escaping the real world. I imagined nonfiction books as boring and pretentious, only made for pulling off of some dusty library shelf for a research project.

Then, I read Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller, and it changed everything.

This narrative nonfiction book, published this year, consists of two parallel memoirs. Most of the book focuses on ichthyologist David Starr Jordan. He was a dedicated scientist in the nineteenth century and the founding president of Stanford University, and he ended up discovering a whole fifth of the fish in the world. Most importantly, he had all this success despite major disasters. His entire life’s work was destroyed several times by fires or earthquakes. 

The other story follows Miller herself, a young adult fresh out of a breakup, struggling with her mental health, and unsure of her place in the world. She is fascinated by Jordan’s ability to thrive despite the chaos that always threatens to consume us, and she wants to know how he did it. How do you go on when your life has been smashed into a million little pieces?

Miller launches a research project about Jordan, and though he is indeed impressive, she also discovers his complicated history — his ties to a murder and his leadership of the eugenics movement in the United States during the early 1900s.

The story then shifts to the people impacted by such prejudice — those with disabilities or mental illnesses, minorities, or anyone who was deemed not good enough to have children. Miller visits people who were held in makeshift prisons and, often, sterilized against their will in a misguided effort to create the perfect race.

It’s a hard book to read at times. Previously, I had known nothing about eugenics in our country, or how it actually influenced the ideologies of Nazi Germany, and suddenly becoming aware of all that suffering was overwhelming. 

But it also felt like something far too important to put down.

Miller combines both her journalistic skills and her unrelenting compassion, and it makes for such a heartfelt, gut-wrenching story.”

I never expected a nonfiction book to make me feel much of anything, but by the end of the story, I was sobbing. Miller, who also works as a science reporter for NPR, combines both her journalistic skills and her unrelenting compassion during her interviews, and it makes for such a heartfelt, gut-wrenching story.

Jordan’s biography forces readers to examine the pedestal we place historical figures on— a topic that has never felt more relevant. When Miller wrote the book last year, Jordan had a statue and psychology building named after him at Stanford. Just this month, the university renamed the building in order to present “a more complete view of [Jordan’s] complex history.”

Miller’s book also tackles the question of how we should persevere in the face of chaos. It takes courage to chase your dreams and live life to the fullest when it feels like it could all fall apart at any moment. Even if Miller doesn’t find the answer to such a difficult question in Jordan’s story, she does make several key discoveries along the way.

These discoveries are also unique because they aren’t rooted in religion or blind optimism. Miller presents ways to carry on that are founded in healing, logic, and, occasionally, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Her words comforted my pessimistic, empirical self in a way many other books — fiction or nonfiction — have failed to do.

However, by the end of the book, I was so angry at the injustice of it all and desperately wanted Jordan to receive some kind of punishment instead of being glamorized in history books. Well, it turns out that Miller has a solution for that, too, hence the book’s title.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is a lesson in privilege, compassion, karma, and resiliency. The writing is emotional and hard-hitting. It makes history personal both through Miller’s life and through the victim’s stories. 

It’s a book that I’m so glad I picked up, and it’s a must-read for anyone searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos.