Thursday, January 21, 2010

First Impressions: J. Safran Foer's Eating Animals

I just started reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer last night.
Why? First of all, I'm a big fangirl and loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. On my nightstand is The Future Dictionary of America, which Foer contributed to. I also got the chance to hear Foer speak at the AWP Conference back in 2008, and I liked what I heard. Secondly, one of my New Years' Resolutions was to give up meat. I go through this battle with myself pretty much constantly - it really does weigh on my conscience, my environmental sense of responsibility, my notions of caloric intake, and even my wallet sometimes. I slip up, I regret it, I stop eating meat again... and repeat.

So when I started reading this last night, I immediately got all defensive. Why? He was on my side after all. Foer talks about his own struggle with not eating meat, addressing all of the things I can relate to: a fear of "public hypocrisy" when you slip up, wanting to create an individual identity (although a lesser motivator, it is still there), ignoring the questions in your head about the morality of eating meat while you're doing it, etc.

Perhaps it was one thing he said that stuck with me:

Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about "eating animals," they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.

To paraphrase: "am I right, or am I right?" Or, Foer seems to be saying that the only logical analysis of what's going on with industrial farming is that it's bad, and logically, any research on the topic must inherently be a case for vegetarianism.

I felt like I was being duped. I assumed this book to be a case for vegetarianism because of the title. I mean, Foer couldn't possibly have overlooked the logical explanation of diction, right? The book is called Eating ANIMALS. Last I checked, we don't eat animals; we eat meat. We don't eat cow, we eat beef; it's not pig, it's pork; it's not chicken, it's... well, ok, chicken = same.

At the outset, I thought his simple word choice of "animals" for "meat" in the title was brilliant, because it implied so much. We love animals; we love to eat meat. We love to keep the two seperate. So by choosing that title, it seemed he was aiming to break down the construct that animals and meat are not one in the same.

I'm going to try really hard to withhold judgment until I see exactly where Foer's going with this book. But for now, I'm kinda prickly about it.


  1. Hmmm, that sounds really interesting!! Although I think this is a thoroughly modern era problem, since a little over 100 years ago families did raise, slaughter, and prepare all their own meat (or sold the leftovers if the cow was particularly huge, since there were no deep freezers then). Obviously, since the animals were on their property and they had to be killed and cleaned before they could be cooked and eaten, there was a clearer understanding (and probably appreciation) of the relationship between Babe the pig and the bacon on the plate. Hopefully the book is heading more towards the idea that we need to be outspoken and demand better lifestyles for those wonderful little creatures destined for the dinner plate.

    To contextualize, I was a vegetarian for 16 years, then went back to eating meat 1.5 years ago. It's been an interesting journey.

  2. Thanks for commenting -- I, too, hope that connection between animals and food is what this book is getting at. It seems to be what's at the heart of Michael Pollan's arguments. Have you seen the PBS special on Pollan's Botany of Desire? It raises a sad, horrifying, but compelling argument for the return of small-time farms and a better quality of life for animals -- you might find it interesting.