In Lulu Miller’s memoir “Why Fish Don’t Exist”, she toggles between scenes from her own life and struggles and the history of David Starr Jordan, a world-famous fish researcher and founding president of Stanford University. Ms. Miller was drawn to Professor Jordan because of his persistence and sense of purpose in the face of tragedy or what she refers to as chaos.
In her own life, she was searching for meaning and purpose. As a child, when she asked her father about the meaning of life, he told her “there is no meaning of life. There is no point. There is no God.” “Chaos, he informed [her], was our only ruler.” As she learns more and more about Professor Jordan, some unpleasant truths emerge about where his quest for stability and order lead him in his thinking. His labeling and categorizing are not limited to fish, and the judgments he makes about people and hierarchy are disturbing. In the book, Ms. Miller brings us to a school of thinking that posits that there is not any such category of fish as we think of them. Therefore, fish don’t exist. As an example, the lungfish shares more common characteristics with humans than salmon. “If fish don’t exist what else don’t we know about our world. What other truths are waiting behind the lines we draw over nature.” She discovers happiness and purpose not by creating order but by letting go of labels. “To remember that a category is at best a proxy; at worst, a shackle.”
For me, one of the takeaways in the book is that by trying to create order because we think we know certain truths, we may be missing out on even greater things. Our history is littered with ideas that were once thought to be truths that we now know were not accurate. In The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the setting for which is a pre-Civil Way Virginia plantation, we see the literal shackles created by labels. Society’s labels at that time according to Professor Coates, Tasks (slaves), Quality (land owners) and Low (poor whites) kept people within their station without ability to rise beyond. Even today, many are labeled and while there may be more mobility, I do wonder how many geniuses are left behind because they can’t move beyond the labels applied to them. “What other truths are waiting behind the lines we draw . . .”
This week’s selection is:
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
Why Fish Don't Exist begins with a mesmerizing account of the life of distinguished biologist David Starr Jordan—and then, quite unexpectedly, turns into so much more. Narrated in Lulu Miller's intimate, quirky voice, this is a story of science and struggle, of heartbreak and chaos.