Friday, May 1, 2020

Pickled? Try This.

Illustration by Kate Samworth in
 Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller.
Simon & Schuster, 2020.

Thank you, Lulu Miller, for dragging me out of my vat of sadness. I’d been feeling pickled, missing my son, loathing Covid, sick of the rain.  Then I opened Why Fish Don’t Exist, a memoir-biography mash-up by the co-creator and host of NPR’s science podcast Invisibilia, and the great swirling madness and sparkle of the world returned.
Why Fish Don’t Exist is of particular interest to those concerned with disability as it poses fundamental questions about the nature of classification. How do we separate one species, one population, one group from another?  Who gets to draw these lines, and what tools do they use? Miller traces the life and thinking of David Starr Jordan (1851-1930), a mustachioed taxonomist who rose to great heights in the early twentieth century.  He named and identified a fifth of the world’s fishes! He was the first president of Stanford University! He had mountains named after him!  The murky side of his worldly success unwinds like a detective story: it seems likely that he poisoned a woman who got in his way. Policies he advocated led to the imprisonment and sterilization of tens of thousands of others.  He was one of the first cheerleaders of the American Eugenics movement; he used his influence to seed the Eugenics Record Office, an all-too-influential think tank that churned out papers asserting that criminality and “pauperism” were inherited. According to the ERO, the way to eradicate poverty was to remove or damage the reproductive organs of the poor, the feeble minded, and anyone else collectively deemed unfit.  

Why dwell on such a man? Knowing thine enemy is as important as knowing thyself. Also, he makes a great counterpoint to Lulu Miller’s own brushes with depression, wonder, whiskey, love.  The interplay between his material and hers is endlessly fascinating, as are the illustrations by Kate Samworth.  Yes, there are pictures: dark, intriguing ones scratched with a sewing needle.  It’s a great web of a book. You can’t come out of it totally hating David Starr Jordan—or perhaps you can, but the portrait Miller paints is rich and compelling, filled with insights and discoveries too complex to detail here.  More likely, you will come out of it with an altered awareness of the way we divide the world, the helpfulness and obstruction of language, and a resounding appreciation for the moments when these barriers are bridged. Not to mention the beauty and wisdom of variation and revision. This one definitely gets pride of place on my disability bookshelf. 

Next up—or soon—This year’s Felix Award Honorees!

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