Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals"

on animals


One might label Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals a book of psychology. The book explores the psychology (social and individual) of how and why humans eat what we do (and don't). Foer is interested in the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of food and animals. Foer also examines the psychology of how we hide, deny, ignore, forget, or explain away what we are actually eating. And that takes us to the heart of the book: Foer examines and exposes the factory farm system and its consequences. His exploration of factory farming is visually descriptive, statistically informative, and rather idiosyncratic. It is also quite powerful.

Foer frequently addresses animals' intelligence and capacity to suffer. This is itself a powerful justification for vegetarianism, and was in fact the driving force of my own. Given our knowledge of animals' intelligence, emotions, social lives, and capacity to suffer, and given that it is unnecessary to eat them, I reached the conclusion that it is wrong to kill and eat them for the pleasure of their taste.

But while Foer has become a vegetarian, his stance seems based much more on repulsion of the factory farm system than on the morality of killing animals itself. This may be why his statement of commitment is vague if not incomprehensible: "Being a vegetarian is a flexible framework, and I've left mental state of constant personal decision making about eating animals (who could stay in such a place indefinitely?) for a steady commitment not to" (197). I teach freshman English, and this is still one of the most awful sentences I've had to re-read. It may also be why he can write that "For me to conclude firmly that I will not eat animals does not mean I oppose, or even have mixed feelings about, eating animals in general" (198). While Foer raises questions about the ethics of consuming animals at all (and allows other voices in: Bruce Friedrich, the narrator of "She Knows Better" [210-215], provides sharp, crisp, and clear arguments) and seems strongly to advocate a vegetarian diet, his book becomes primarily a scathing, damning critique of the factory farm system. This is good, but I don't think Foer takes animals' ability to think and feel to its full consequences.

I was most interested in Foer's discussions of "storytelling," of the way we eat and the ethical consequences of our eating. Like Foer, I am a new father, and many of his concerns about eating, ethics, and family are my concerns. The book does help reinforce and recommit me to a mostly vegan lifestyle, but also leads me to anxious despair of the future and may have enhanced my already burgeoning germaphobia.

The Importance
Many of the ideas Foer explores (or gives voice to) are not new, and he is not the first to expose the realities and consequences of industrial agriculture. But Foer's book is well-written and, I think, important. Jonathan Safran Foer is a well-known novelist, meaning some people may read his book about eating animals that otherwise wouldn't, that his book about eating animals will be reviewed in sources that otherwise wouldn't review such a book, and that he'll get to have interviews about eating animals at sources that otherwise wouldn't have interviews on the subject. We need writers with the insights and writing ability of Jonathan Safran Foer to explore and popularize this issue.

It is a very good book that I would like to recommend for anybody.

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