Chaos will get them.
Chaos will crack them from the outside — with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet — or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build.
It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world.
David Starr Jordan was an ichthyologist and influential scientist, a founding president of Stanford University when he was only forty. After the loss of his specimen collection in 1906 when an earthquake hit San Francisco, he set about rebuilding, going on despite devastation — actions that “justified forward momentum on the bleakest of days”.
NPR journalist and podcaster Lulu Miller endured bouts of depression, feeling suicidal, and major life upsets, and in trying to navigate her own devastation she felt herself becoming inspired by what Jordan had accomplished in the face of seeming utter and total defeat.
As I made a wreck of my own life and began to try to piece it back together, I started to wonder about this taxonomist. Maybe he had figured something out — about persistence, or purpose, or how to go on — that I needed to know.
Now the kicker: Jordan was a eugenicist, a villain all along. He was objectively a terrible person, and it doesn’t really come as a surprise. It feels more like that fact was buried in order to tell this story differently. Even the quickest goog will clue you in immediately.
But sure, let’s assume it remained a mystery. How does one reckon with the impression he’s made, and the seeming lessons that can be drawn from his perseverance? Sort of haphazardly. This never quite came together. Miller is a podcaster and this book is the most podcasty thing I’ve ever read. I don’t care how much people love audiobooks, stop trying to make what should be a podcast into a book. And especially don’t do it in that Radiolab, whiplashing-between-subjects way.
For what started out as one of the most powerful openings I can remember reading in awhile, I got annoyed at this fast. Connections end up feeling contrived and the general tone is– well, not “twee,” considering the darkness of some of the subjects, but also, it kind of is?
I was very irritated at things like describing Trump (purposely not named but obvious) as “once a man of some power” and a jokey mention of Hitler as “some guy,” which, nope. There’s a big message here (among a bunch of life-lesson themes shoehorned into natural science and biology) about the power of language, and what changing usage can do and mean, but that “man of some power” and “some guy named Hitler” got enough damage done to make sure it was and will be felt for plenty of time to come, so what a grossly cutesy, insensitive way to phrase these.
This is not even touching on how much of Jordan’s badness feels glazed over, like acknowledged for the sake of making a good story, i.e., is it ok to have gotten so much personal direction from the life and work of this person who was awful without meaningfully acknowledging how deep that awfulness goes and how long-lasting and pervasive its effects have been, especially for people of color and those in marginalized positions.
The memoir portions had some sparkling moments but others were kind of eye-rolly and I didn’t want to feel that way. I feel guilty about it, especially because her honesty about feeling a failure and impostor, like you’ve made one mistake too many, is anything you’re doing worthwhile, and everything looking decidedly bleak is something I appreciate so much. Getting honest glimpses into how others have dealt with those feelings and dark thoughts is always incredibly helpful and yet so hard to put out there, publicly acknowledging your own vulnerability.
Those parts were great. But the connection with Jordan, twee writing style, and the way it always reads like a podcast and probably just should’ve been one were too much.
And it does have some interesting and worthwhile elements in the non-memoir sections, like the shocking information that the US Supreme Court still hasn’t overturned laws allowing for forced sterilization (the fuck!) and that technically, broken down into taxonomic order, fish really don’t exist. Fascinating. (But also, a fact that could be explained in less than a page). The rest, not so much.
published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster