Reviewed by Ward
Following the huge success of his debut novel Everything Is Illuminated and its follow-up Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer has now turned his hand to nonfiction, offering up the less poetically but very aptly titled Eating Animals, a survey of modern animal agriculture and the role we as consumers can and do play therein.
To readers familiar with the work of Foer this — temporary — transition from fiction to fact should not come as that much of a surprise. The autobiographical protagonist of Everything Is Illuminated was already a vegetarian, an element explicitly present throughout the entire novel. Furthermore, Oscar, the nine-year-old protagonist of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was a vegan even, though charmingly exempting the occasional dairy ice-cream. With these two characters Foer gradually lay the foundation for Eating Animals, a book not merely starring a vegetarian or a vegan character but focusing exclusively and explicitly on the widespread practice of, indeed, eating animals.
While most literature on animal exploitation and animal rights can be seen as being fairly heavy — be it because of being of a philosophical nature on the one hand, or of too explicit, confrontational and/or supposedly radical a nature on the other — Foer seems to shoot for a wider audience with his book and thus opts for a lighter voice. A voice that, while being honest and truthful — and therefore inherently shocking and confrontational — is also funny, clever, and poetic at times. By this I do not mean to say that Eating Animals is light reading, but rather that Foer impressively manages to combine the brutal reality of animal exploitation with an undertone that is very much human.
For Eating Animals is not simply a holier-than-thou lecture on what you should and should not do — or in this case, should or should not eat — but rather a personal account of Foer’s own experiences regarding vegetarianism and the reasons that led him to making this choice — as well as those that kept him from committing fully to it until recently. Or as Foer already states early on in the book: “I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t.” At the same time he rightly points out that whenever he told people of the book he was working on, they would assume that it was a case for vegetarianism. “…a telling assumption,” according to Foer, “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.”
While the former is most definitely true, and proven many times over throughout the entire book, it is the latter that is most important here. For if people know deep down that something is wrong with modern animal agriculture, then why do they choose to perpetuate rather than to end it? Is it because we as a species have become so insensitive and so far removed from nature that we fail to see the suffering of others, or are we so superior that it simply does not matter?
Where most books exposing animal exploitation largely focus on the grievous wrongs humans have and continue to commit towards animals, and why animals, too, should indeed have rights, Foer also tries to explain why the vast majority of people do not necessarily come to the same conclusion. This he does by acknowledging the fact that food is much more to us than “just” physical nourishment for our bodies, and that it carries a great cultural, historical, and psychological power as well. Or as he puts it himself in an example regarding his grandmother:
Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love. Her culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories, like the cunning of the grandfather I never met, or the single fight of my parents’ marriage. We clung to those stories and depended on them to define us.
Looking at it this way it is easy to see why confronting people about their eating habits can often trigger an emotional and defensive, if not downright hostile, response. Asking people to change their diet is not as simple as asking them to switch from Pepsi to Coca-Cola, for example, just like the question of an omnivorous versus a veg(etari)an diet is not as easily overcome or put aside as “you like the Beatles, I like the Stones.” But does the difficult and loaded nature of the subject provide us with the justification to simply ignore it then, to persist in our behavior, destructive as that might be? Does it give us the right to turn a blind eye, where instead we should be watching with eyes wide open, horrified?
And sure, when asked most people will say that animals kept for meat, dairy, or eggs should be treated kindly during their lives and that they deserve a painless death. Yet when dinnertime comes around possible doubts as to where exactly that dinner came from and how it was produced are easily forgotten. Because surely things cannot be that bad? Right?
Wrong. Male piglets are castrated and have their tails and teeth cut off mere days after birth, all without anesthesia. Male chicks, which are obviously useless to the egg industry, are electrocuted, suffocated or even shredded alive, their female counterparts transported to battery cages where they will spend about a year in close confinement, withheld food and manipulated with light and dark so that they will produce more eggs, all this without ever being able to indulge in their natural behavior or seeing the outside. That is, until they are roughly loaded into crates and driven to the nearest slaughterhouse.
Compared to the layers, the broilers — that is, chickens raised for their flesh — are lucky indeed; they only have to live in filthy overcrowded sheds until they are slaughtered at the age of six or seven weeks — mere infants, really. Of course, had they been allowed to live in natural circumstances they would not nearly have been ripe for slaughter at this age, but because their genes have been so tampered with and they are fed everything from antibiotics to hormones in addition to an unnatural diet, at six to seven weeks their bodies will have become so heavy that their legs can hardly take the weight.
And did you know, for example, that the modern turkey is such a perversion of the animal from which it originally stems that it is no longer even capable of naturally reproducing anymore? Or that 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals captured by modern shrimp fisheries are thrown overboard, “dead or dying, as bycatch”? Or that 145 species of fish are killed regularly while fishing for tuna? (So much for choosing fish as a more ethical or ecological alternative to meat.) Foer does know, and he does not hesitate to share this information with anyone that will listen.
But who will listen? In the answer to this question, I think, is where the true strength of Eating Animals lies. For even though Foer is by no means the staunchest advocate of animal rights, and Eating Animals is by no means absolute — where is the chapter on dairy, for example, an industry that causes just as much damage and harm as its meat and egg producing counterparts? — he does have one big advantage that most other writers on the subject lack, namely a voice that carries wide. Because animal rights philosophers, advocates and activists can write all the books they want, but in the end their efforts will probably only reach a small audience. An audience, moreover, that is most likely already familiar and sympathetic with, if not downright supportive of, the subject matter.
Foer on the other hand has achieved great international acclaim with his previous two novels, and I applaud him for not taking the easy road with his third book, instead using his position to tackle a topic that is sensitive and polarizing to say the least. Because even though both Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close dealt with important issues as well — the former with the holocaust and the latter with 9/11 — I think that neither is as essential as Eating Animals. For where the two former books reflected on wrongs of the past, Eating Animals deals with one that is being committed right this second, and with our silent consent, and will continue to be committed unless we challenge it head-on, hard as that may be.
And while believing in the power of books to actually bring about change might sound hopelessly naive or clichéd, even to my own ears, at the same time I cannot help but remember a conversation I had with one of my professors a couple of years ago. Reading Everything Is Illuminated she was touched by a very simple sentence — something along the lines of “did your food have a mother or a father?” — and actually did change her ways, proving that books can, in fact, reach people and make them question the status quo. Does this mean that Eating Animals will change the world? No. Most likely it will not. But at the very least it will sway a few people, and help to put an industry in the spotlight that, because of its horrendous nature, can only exist in the dark. And for that Foer deserves all the praise I can give.