NPR’s Lulu Miller on Zoom “Why Fish Don’t Exist”

“Why Fish Don’t Exist” by Lulu Miller

A wondrous debut from an extraordinary new voice in nonfiction, 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 a thousand of his 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 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 reads like a fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.

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Lulu Miller is a contributing editor and co-founder of the NPR program Invisibilia.

Miller covers stories that challenge our assumptions about how the human organism works—from the story of The “Bat Man” (a man who is blind and uses echolocation to navigate the world), to the tale of Martin Pistorius (who was locked in his body for 13 years but found a way to emerge), to a surprising new way to overcome your demons, by, well, lying to yourself.

She is always on the hunt for “stories in which Duct-Tape Solves the Ethereal Sadness,” as she puts it. To hear more about that, take a listen here. In January 2015, Miller and NPR Science Correspondent Alix Spiegel created Invisibilia, a series from NPR about the unseen forces that control human behavior – our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts. Invisibilia interweaves personal stories and fascinating new psychological and brain science in a way that, ultimately, makes you see your own life differently. The radio program is available in podcast form and excerpts are featured on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Before that, she was a reporter on the NPR Science Desk.

Prior to joining NPR in 2013, Miller taught and wrote fiction at the University of Virginia on a Poe-Faulkner Fellowship. Before that, she was with Radiolab, working as one of the founding producers on the weekly public radio show and podcast that weaves stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries. Radiolab is produced by WNYC. Miller produced Radiolab for five years and continues to serve as a contributor. Her work has been recognized by the George Foster Peabody Awards, Third Coast, and The Missouri Review.

Miller graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in History.

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