Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Review: Eating Animals

My good friend Erica gave me a copy of Eating Animals for my birthday last August. We're both devout vegetarians as well as lovers of good literature, and she knew I'd enjoy the book. She was right, even though it took me nearly a year to pick it up. I'm not sure why I waited so long - I think part of it was that I was burned out on food writing, and part of it was that I was busy reading a million things for school. I'm glad I waited, though. The experience of this book was a lot to handle, and I needed all my mental and emotional fortitude to get through it. 

Basically, Eating Animals is a vivid, visceral exploration of factory farming in America. The author, Jonathan Safran Foer, is a vegetarian, but he's not necessarily advocating a vegetarian lifestyle. That's just the natural conclusion that most people - after reading about the absolutely horrific and nauseating treatment of factory farmed animals - will arrive at. Everyone knows that factory farms are evil - we've seen the videos on YouTube, we've read the literature - but for some reason, Foer's descriptions affected more than any short film could. He's an excellent writer (I loved both of his novels, Everything is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and he does a great job of balancing the personal with the political. He recognizes that eating is not something we do alone in a dark room - the food we share with our family and friends is a social act, a way to remember our past, carry on traditions, honor our families, and share our stories. That's why changing the way we eat is so hard - it feels like you're abandoning the person you are, the place from which you came. Foer, however, argues that it's time for new stories, ones that don't hedge on the unnecessary and ceaseless suffering of animals. 

There are many people who claim to eat animals ethically, an ambition which Foer respects and admires (as do I). Foer interviews a wide range of people in this book, from vegan animal activists to farmers and ranchers raising meat in a compassionate and sustainable manner, even letting them tell their stories from their points of view for pages at a time. Still, according to the book, 99% of the meat consumed in America comes from factory farms. Foer writes, "There isn't enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island, not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country." Furthermore, every time you make an exception - ordering a burger at a chain restaurant, or eating a meal prepared at a dinner party, you're still supporting factory farms. I happen to know a large number of people who go the grass fed, free range way when eating meat, and I think that's a vast improvement over factory farms. But the truth is, if you're serious about eating only humanely raised animals, you're going to be eating a lot of vegetarian dinners.

Another part of the book I enjoyed (though that seems an odd word for a book that made me cry, oh, every chapter) was Foer's musings on why we eat certain animals, and not others. He spends an early chapter discussing the merits of eating dogs - not our pets, of course, but the thousands of strays that end up euthanized every week. "If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame." Just typing that sentence made me feel nauseous, and I'm sure reading it has evoked a similar visceral reaction in you. Why then, Foer asks, do we feel that way about dogs, and not, for example, about pigs, or chickens, or cows? It's an interesting question, one that Foer does an excellent job exploring and attempting to answer throughout the book.

It's no secret that I'm a vegetarian for moral reasons, and for the most part I'm a live-and-let-live kind of lady. I don't go out of my way to make non-vegetarians feel persecuted, I don't mind when friends order or serve meat at gatherings, and I don't discuss my own morals unless someone asks me directly. But every now and then - especially when I read a book like Eating Animals - I'm reminded of the horror that animals face every day, and keeping quiet seems as much a crime as factory farms.

I've only touched on a few aspects of the book in this review, and not really reviewed the actual writing at all. I guess that's a testament to the book - it's so well researched and so well written, that all I can focus on are the animals, which I'm pretty sure was Foer's intention all along. Obviously, I recommend this book - whether or not you eat meat, it will make you uncomfortable, and force you to question things you might otherwise take for granted. It's not an easy book, and I mean that in the best possible way.