I have been pondering, avoiding, formulating this review for almost a week now. I finished the book – Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Eating Animals – in my car, passenger window broken out, as I drove from northeastern Maryland to D.C. to be with Dave. As half of my face tightened up with the heat of a blasting air duct and the other half tingled with cold, I came to the conclusion that I already knew would arrive – I am done eating meat. That’s it. Done.
For years I have been, as Foer (is it Foer or Saffran Foer) was, an on again off again vegetarian. In high school I stopped eating meat because, well, I wanted to be different, and this was an easy way to do it. In college, I lasted longer and started telling people I didn’t eat meat because I was trying to improve my health – “My family has a history of heart disease.” For the next 15 years I went through spurts of vegetarianism, almost all of them ended when I started dating a man who, without variation, ate meat. (Are there no vegetarians on the dating scene?)
But now, despite the fact that I’m absolute head over heels for a guy who eats meat, I am stopping, and the honest and true reason for my new steadfastness is Foer’s book. I just cannot be a responsible person who can live with herself if I continue to eat meat after I have heard what we do to animals. I simply cannot.
Foer’s argument is reasoned, fair, and truly understanding. He speaks from the perspective of someone who knows what it is to eat meat. There’s no strident proselytizing here. Instead, this book is an honest investigation of what it takes to bring the meat to our tables.
The style of the book is also intriguing. It reads as part memoir, part investigative journalism, part position paper, but throughout all of this, you hear the voice of a man who is struggling with his own internal contradictions. In a couple of places in the book, he lets people speak for themselves – the industrial farmer, the heritage turkey raiser, the owners (or former owners) of Niman Ranch, the PETA activist. These voices, overlaid on Foer’s, create a complex and nuanced view on this complex topic that often makes people defensive.
As Publisher’s Weekly said:
The latest from novelist Foer is a surprising but characteristically brilliant memoir-investigation, boasting an exhaustively-argued account of one man-child’s decade-long struggle with vegetarianism. On the eve of becoming a father, Foer takes all the arguments for and against vegetarianism a neurotic step beyond and, to decide how to feed his coming baby, investigates everything from the intelligence level of our most popular meat providers â€” cattle, pigs, and poultry â€” to the specious self-justifications (his own included) for eating some meat products and not others. Foer offers a lighthearted counterpoint to his investigation in doting portraits of his loving grandmother, and her meat-and-potatoes comfort food, leaving him to wrestle with the comparative weight of food’s socio-cultural significance and its economic-moral-political meaning. Without pulling any punches â€” factory farming is given the full exposÃ© treatment â€” Foer combines an array of facts, astutely-written anecdotes, and his furious, inward-spinning energy to make a personal, highly entertaining take on an increasingly visible (and book-selling) moral question; call it, perhaps, An Omnivore’s Dilemma.
The question Foer poses, and the one I was forced to consider, was whether my pleasure in eating something could and should outweigh the pain and suffering of those creatures who I am now eating. My answer was an easy one – no, it should not.
And this aspect of Foer’s book – the treatment of animals – is not the only point he makes about why we might want to consider our meat-eating habits. He discusses issues of food quality, disease transmission (it’s called swine flu for a reason), and environmental degradation. This is not a one-sided argument he has made here.
The book is good, hard, but really good. He presents a reasoned, fair, personalized argument (the explorations about his dog George and his responsibility to his young son are both poignant and well-articulated)for why he no longer eats meat, and his argument convinced me. I hope that you will consider letting it convince you, too.
For a brief look at his book, check out The Food Issue.