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Review: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss by Lulu Miller

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My Interest

The first I heard of this book was a friend saying “because of that book,” when I asked if she understood why our Alma mater, Indiana University, had just announced renaming the so-called “Jordan River” (it’s more a of a creek) and Jordan Hall.  No word on Jordan Avenue–which runs through the campus connecting, among other things, old Fraternity Row with the new Fraternity Row located on North Jordan. The Jordan was David Starr Jordan President of Indiana University, and later first president of Stanford University.

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Jordan Hall at Indiana University, now the Biology Building. Photo credit: Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

In the 1980’s I spent part of two summers in what had been a small artists and intellectuals colony on Lake Pend Oreille in Northern Idaho [just as the Nazis started ruining the area] where my artist great uncle and his wife lived in retirement (and had lived in the summer for decades). There I met a relative of David Starr Jordan’s (his granddaughter?) and visited his cabin where she still summered. So, this attack of political correctness seemed even more personal than many others. Was it just the woke crew at it–or was there merit to the removal of the name? I had to read “that book” to find out.

The Story

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Photo credit: Stanford University

The author had a tumultuous childhood with an atheist chemist for a father who tells her there is no meaning to life and she doesn’t matter in the scheme of things–nor does anyone or anything else. So, having had her self-esteem destroyed by the answer to her first-ever big life question, the author lands on David Starr Jordan as an idol. He, if you did not know, collected more species of fish than just about anyone else and was responsible for giving them their names. He showed remarkable grit and determination when his specimens and their jars were nearly wiped out by an Earthquake. He’d made punched metal name tags for each fish, but had only floated the labels in the jar of formaldehyde–he hadn’t attached anything to the actual fish. So, picking up a fish whose name he could recall, he looked through the debris and plucked out the label, sewed it to the fish itself and re-packaged it for safekeeping. He did this was as many as he could remember. The author loved this.

Jordan, who served as President of both Indiana University and Stanford University, had a lot of weirdness to him beyond his obsession with catching, keeping, and naming fish specimens. This wasn’t enough to make a book from apparently, for the author felt compelled to tell us not only her life story but of her desire to press the goosebumps on someone with her tongue. Yeah. We needed to know this. This is where I determined the model for the book was H is for Hawk, but with the added hook of taking credit away from a true villain. The message being that not only was Jordan weird and possibly a criminal and more, but he wanted to rid the world of what he considered sexual deviants. So like poor, truly tortured TH White of H is for Hawk, the author uses her story to show how shattering it was to pick the wrong idol for a woman leaving behind heterosexuality. Jordan would have wanted to kill her. (Note: He’d have lumped me in, too, for suffering from depression and being from a family of depressives.)

First, let me say that I do not consider the author or anyone a sexual deviant unless they prey on children, the disabled, the frail elderly, or animals. I am happy that she found happiness. For the life of me though I could not stretch to get my arms around why HER story belonged in a book about HIM. Just like I couldn’t fathom the connection between TH White’s sexuality and the training of Goshawks (yes, I did read every word–I’m still not sold on the dual story line).

Eugenics, pre-Hitler, was especially popular in the Indiana of the 1920s whose state government was run by the KKK and who had a desire to rid the state of “undesirables” enacted into law that allowed the forcible sterilization of women it deemed inferior. David Starr Jordan had a real role in this movement. [For the record, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Gilbreths of Cheaper by the Dozen admired it too. They subscribed to the idea that the best should have the most children***].

Eugenics, like phrenology, has not place in today’s world. Although we do not, as a world society, always do a great job of backing this up, today we espouse the idea that ALL lives, whether in a rich country or a poor one, deserve to be lived with dignity and dignity includes being about to have a family. Jordan’s views on eugenics are no longer appropriate and, unlike the Founding Fathers, who deserve their place in history in spite of their flaws, David Star Jordan’s 15 minutes of fame expired long ago. He deserves his place in the wastebasket of history.

My Thoughts

The book, though clearly a biased look at Jordan, was sufficiently well-researched to convince me that I.U. and Stanford were both better off without the taint of Jordan’s name attached today.

I did not like the author’s intrusive personal story nor did I like her glib writing style. She was presenting a serious case and made it sound like something on a college podcast instead of the work of a respected science journalist. Nonetheless, her desire to expose Jordan for what he truly was is laudable.

My Verdict

3 Fish

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller

Thank you to Kristin Kraves Books who also alerted me to this book.

***See PBS American Experience’s The Eugenics Crusade

H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald (my review is linked)

2 thoughts on “Review: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss by Lulu Miller

  1. This is a huge moral dilemma all over the world right now. I think all statues and monuments of people who had questionable morals even if it was accepted at the time, should be moved. They should not be glamorized, but remembered for the history and so we don’t repeat that history. Put them in museums where they belong. This book sounds like it is a bit biased for sure. Great review, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

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