Let me just explain up front Why Fish Don’t Exist: because, taxonomically, fish is an imprecise designation. It’s not that “animals that aren’t mammals that live in the water” isn’t a useful category to you and me, it’s that it’s not a rigorous biological categorization. That’s not the point of Why Fish Don’t Exist, or rather, it’s only obliquely the point of it.
It’s really a memoir; a memoir of a kid who was weird and anxious and had a philosopher for a father, the kind of philosopher who would insist that the chair she was sitting in didn’t actually exist, which isn’t going to make anyone less weird or anxious. She is in a period in her twenties where life isn’t going especially well for her, and she ends up slightly obsessed with a guy named David Starr Jordan, who was a taxonomist and the first president of Stanford University. So it also ends up being a little bit of a biography of him (aside: one chapter is the story of the possible murder of Jane Stanford, wife of Stanford University founder Leland Stanford, and it is WILD). Jordan was a taxonomist and eugenicist (second aside: forced sterilization is still a supreme-court-approved thing in the United States – this aside is less wild and more appalling), who was also really, really good at persevering. And that’s what she’s interested in: the perseverance.
As the above, ramble-y, paragraph implies: this book is all over the place. It’s not long, but it is crammed with interesting stories and it does all come together in the end to show you a person who is, not less weird or anxious than she was at the start of the book, but more accepting of her weirdness and anxiety, and therefore happier.
Why Fish Don’t Exist is an interesting, distracting pandemic read. It might make you feel better about the mental state that the pandemic has put you in. It certainly helped me.