Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a departure from the author’s other well known work. Unlike Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s acclaimed fi...moreEating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a departure from the author’s other well known work. Unlike Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s acclaimed first novel about a boy traveling to the Ukraine in search of a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a boy dealing with his father’s death in the aftermath of 9/11, Eating Animals is a work of non-fiction.
After the birth of his first child, Foer decides to reevaluate various aspects of his life, including his eating habits. He begins to explore the industry built around animals as food, an industry that is one of the largest parts of both the American and the global economy.
However, despite this main difference, Eating Animals is not as different from Foer’s novels as it may sound. As in his fiction, Foer explores his own life and personal philosophy, particularly his Jewish faith.
As in his fiction, the author includes snippets of his own childhood, in this case, book ending his research with anecdotes about his grandmother’s cooking. Foer continues to use expressive prose, offering pithy truths such as his grandmother’s words of wisdom that “if nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
In his book, Foer considers the views of everyone from slaughterhouse owners to PETA activists, trying to come to a conclusion regarding the ethics of eating animals. Eating Animals also gives frequent reference, sometimes in agreement and sometimes in rebuttal, to one of the most well known books on the subject of animal agriculture, Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma.
These sources do well to establish Foer’s credibility on the subject. Where he falters, however, are in his other sources. Foer begins his argument by discussing Franz Kafka’s decision to become a vegetarian, a story he brings up repeatedly throughout the book. While Foer’s own anecdotes are relevant and interesting, his retelling of Kafka’s is not. It also gives the book a somewhat pompous and self-righteous tone.
This is one of the major failings of the book, and is further added to by Foer’s conclusion that not eating animals cannot be a halfway effort. While it is true that eating the occasional vegetarian meal will not be enough to shut down the meat processing industry, Foer admits early in the book that, for a long time, he was very lax in his vegetarianism. This makes it seem somewhat hypocritical for him to say that people should become strict vegetarians in order to make an impact on the industry of animal agriculture.
Luckily, Foer’s self-important manner is not present in the majority of the book, only in certain instances. On the other hand, Eating Animals’s biggest asset is Foer’s use of imagery, present throughout the book. While his descriptions of what happens to poultry, cows, and pigs in factory farms and slaughterhouses may turn readers’ stomachs with their graphicness, they provide an honest look into the gritty, repulsive reality of how a living animal becomes lunchmeat.
In his research, Foer discovers that animals, especially those in factory farms, suffer countless injustices and sickening, inhumane treatments. From chickens with their beaks ripped off to pigs beaten with crowbars, readers will be hard-pressed to remove these images of animal suffering from their minds and will undoubtedly think twice about the meat in their diets.
While not the definitive book on the subject (that title most likely goes to the aforementioned Omnivore’s Dilemma), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals still presents a compelling argument about the ethics of slaughterhouses themselves, and about the personal choices people make when it comes to eating animals.
This review first appeared in Buzzsaw Magazine. (less)