What I’m Reading (No. 120): looking for meaning

In the last couple weeks I’ve finished a couple books that delve into the idea of meaning — one in the form of a long novel, the other in the form of a short non-fiction work that defies easy categorization.

This is a longer edition, so let’s get right to it.

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller (2020, 193 pages)

“It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world.”

This potent line is found near the beginning of Lulu Miller’s new book. At the start, at least, it’s an exploration of chaos’ reign in our lives, which inevitably leads to other existential questions. Lulu is a co-creator of one of my favorite podcasts, Invisibilia. And this wonderful, superbly readable book unfolds like an episode of Invisibilia in the form of the written word.

Like the podcast often does, Why Fish Don’t Exist takes on a couple different storylines, which seemingly go in different directions, but then converge at the end for a meaningful gut punch of a . . . life lesson? That doesn’t quite feel like the right term, but it also does. It’s just not the same sort of neat, tidy, immediately actionable lesson that you’d find in a self-help book.

The primary storyline is that of the supremely interesting David Starr Jordan. He was a scientist and fish taxonomist who, at the turn of the twentieth century, was responsible for a shocking number of fish discoveries and taxonomical categorizations — well into four figures. In multiple instances, however, the universe seemed to conspire to take his work from him and destroy all those fish he’d so painstakingly collected and labeled. At first, Lulu looks to him for inspiration. What keeps someone standing and staring confidently into the inevitable, shifting, chaotic tides of chaos?

But, that initial assumption about where the narrative will go is certainly not the end of it. We get a lot of Miller’s own journey too, and an eventual dissatisfaction with the route that Jordan took.

As Lulu herself admits, this book is impossible to categorize. It’s part science (you will indeed learn why fish don’t exist), part memoir, part philosophy even. No matter the genre it falls into, though, it’s a great story that’ll both entertain and inspire a deeper reflection about the world around you, and your place in it.

4 Bookish Questions With Lulu

Lulu was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about books. She gave me some delightful answers.

1) Your book wrestles a lot with meaning — what are we here for? What books, besides Jordan's, have helped you shape your own thinking in regards to meaning? 

Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This book gets a weird amount of eye-roll should you bring it up in mixed company, but it was such a salve for me when I first came across it as a 21-year-old. It was such an addictive, black-hole reading experience where everything else fell away (my worries, my uncertainties, my impatience for life to mean something) and I just read each page with hunger. There is amazing scenework in there — images of his parents’ ashes in the wind, of a collapsing balcony, of sliding down a wooden hallway with his little brother that stick with me 15 years later, though I’ve never re-read it. It’s a mix of humor and meditations on unthinkable loss, and there are all these charming digressions and even a drawing of a stapler at one point. I remember staring at it, thinking, “You can do that? You can just make a page of the book a drawing of a stapler?” And the next thought was, of course, you can do anything. That was a powerful jolt I needed right then, an invitation and reminder, I think, to writers, to readers, to think outside of the box, to try things, to play a bit before it’s all over.

Nicole Krauss’ novel, The History of Love, is another book I hold dear. Forgive it its title. The nuance, the humor, the characters inside are a glorious slap to the face, punch in the gut, and squeeze of the shoulders.

2) I love the bookish rabbit hole you venture into — finding everything Jordan wrote, and everything that other people have written about him. It's so delightfully obsessive and I can relate! Any other memorable bookish rabbit holes you've ventured into for work or pleasure? 

OMG! CAREFUL, you. So many. But the one I’ll share here is this whole trove of documents called “Onitsha Market Literature.” Onitsha was one of Nigeria’s busiest port-towns during the end of the colonial era and the beginning of independence in 1960. And right at that time there was this explosion of writing IN ENGLISH by Nigerians for Nigerians about how to survive and thrive in the city, in life. There were pamphlets, pulpy novels, poems, all kinds of stuff with all kinds of different messages and tones. I read hundreds of these texts for my senior thesis in college (about whether or not prostitutes were really the first “independent” women as some scholars argue) and it was such a magical, colorful, illuminating deep dive. There were great phrases and poetic images and hilarious sayings and stunning one liners like — “Oh kiss me, and let me know myself” — that I still remember today. Librarian Kurt Thometz published an anthology of some of his favorite texts called Life Turns Man Up and Down, which is a great entry point to the material. 

3) What are you reading right now? 

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Eisenberg. It is a new book of nonfiction. It masquerades as true crime — it investigates a double murder in Appalachia in 1980 —but is so much more. Every single page is a stunner. An artful, nuanced look at America, culture, humanity. Her prose and structure is absolutely breathtaking. Almost done and already want to re-read. 

4) Is there a book you find yourself constantly talking about or recommending or gifting to other people?

Bear by Marian Engle. My favorite book on earth. Better not to say anything about the plot except it’s fiction. I think I’ve purchased over twenty copies over the years to give to friends. 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013, 463 pages)

“Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and determining force of all, luck.”

The search for meaning in Wolitzer’s novel is subtler than in Miller’s book; the existential questions are being explored more with inner dialogues and veiled conversations. But the ideas presented are just as potent.

It starts at a summer camp for artsy teenagers. Six of them form a group of high-minded creatives who anoint themselves the Interestings. Honestly, I didn’t find the plot itself all that interesting, but the characters certainly were, especially as they moved into middle-age in the second half of the book.

Early on, it’s sure possible that the story didn’t resonate with me simply because I’ve moved on from that teen/twentysomething creative idealism — it’s more a fault of my own reading than with Wolitzer. But as the Interestings aged into careers and families, successes and failures, and crises beyond just their art, it seemed to speak more to real life.

Most resonant to me was how each sought to define the role of their creative work and talents in their life. There’s only one character who seems to have “it” and becomes wildly successful, but even that one wrestle with the role of luck and connections and gender. Others give up their creative side entirely, having been scarred by past experiences. And a couple of them simply realize that their gifts aren’t enough to make a career of; how do they then fold their passions into the practicalities of having a family? And bills to pay?

While is was a little slow for my liking at times, Wolitzer does know how to craft a sentence, especially when it comes to dialogue. I loved this line, for instance: “Everything you do, it’ll all feel really slow for a long time. But looking back, much later, it will have seemed like it was fast.” The play with tense there, especially in those last eight words, is brilliant.

I can’t decide who I’d recommend this book to. So, reader, I’m leaving you to your own devices on this one.

That’s all for me this week. Thank you, as always, for the time and inbox space. I deeply appreciate it. Let me know what you’re reading!