Next Tuesday at 12:35pm, Jonathan Safran Foer will be doing a “virtual visit” to the Illini Union, in room 404, giving us a chance to ask him questions about his book Eating Animals, a heavy piece of nonfiction. I call it heavy not because its prose is dense (it’s quite pleasant to read) or because it is full of numbers (all figures that are there are necessary, and in good context), but because its subject matter is so difficult to stomach (pun intended). Though the title might imply that it is a straightforward vegetarian manifesto, Foer assures his readers as early as page 13 that it is not. It is something more complicated and less comfortable for both omnivorous and herbivorous humans.It is, admittedly, the sort of story I have come to know pretty well in my explorations of what I should and should not eat, beginning with Chew on This! (a teenager’s version of Fast Food Nation), and continuing with Michael Pollan’s books, Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh (a history of supermarkets), and of course the film Food, Inc. This is not a new narrative, but Foer does bring some fresh points to it. His is the first I have read that truly brings home the moral issues of eating fish (which we either catch with enormous trawlers or farm in unimaginably cramped conditions) or even humanely farmed animals that we still kill when they are barely even adolescents.
I should note here that do not mean to preach one style of eating or another. On the contrary, as an on-and-off vegetarian for the past year and a half, I know exactly what Foer means by “conscientious inconsistency;” that is, knowing that eating meat is “wrong” for ethical or environmental reasons but allowing myself breaks because it tastes good. This book has made me lean a little more towards not eating meat, but I will still probably eat turkey this Thanksgiving, for nothing if not sentimental reasons. That is the other focus of the book, the meat that somehow, brings us together as a culture and as humans. Though Foer is now a vegetarian, he acknowledges the difficulties of being one amongst non-vegetarians, and the difficult choice between fully enjoying a communal meal where meat is served and holding to one’s principles.
One of my favorite passages occurs near the beginning, when he humorously quotes George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Though he uses this quote in a different context than in the novella, it is true that there are some animals whose lives are valued by our society and others who are not. The difference is sometimes a very fine line, as my mother discovered when she recently got chickens, and found that, having nurtured them from when they were just hatched, she no longer felt comfortable eating their kin.
If you are squeamish about blood, death, and suffering, consider not reading this book. I do not consider myself so, and still some of the descriptions of animal lives and deaths in Eating Animals made my stomach turn. Yet despite this, it is a fine book, and I would recommend it to both those who are unsure about meat or who have made up their minds one way or another. This is a book that will, for better or worse, change the way that you think.