Saturday, March 13, 2010

Eating Animals

I was initially ambivalent about including Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals on my Christmas wish list. Having gone through Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Ethics of What We Eat, I wasn’t sure there was going to be enough compelling information to justify reading another book about modern food production. In the end, I plopped it on my list, not caring much whether I actually got it or not, which practically guaranteed that I’d find it under my metaphorical tree.

I tend to start books dealing with this subject matter with a bit of trepidation, since more than a few have crossed my reading table that are so sensationalizing, guilt-string pulling and accusatory that they’ve managed to turn me off within 20 pages. Seriously, if you can’t keep me, “ms. bleeding heart for the critters” hooked, what are your chances with the ambivalent masses?

Foer’s opening play is an argument on whether the reasons why Americans don’t eat dogs (and cats, for that matter) is viable. Hook firmly set. No chance of me wriggling off the line for some time.

Foer explores many of the issues around factory farming that have been covered in other texts, but in more than a few cases comes at them from a completely new angle. Rather than paraphrase the philosophy of Frank Reese, raiser of heritage turkeys, Foer provides a few pages where Reese’s statements on the matter are printer verbatim, in his own words. Likewise, in his section where he aligns three essays about eating meat; one from a vegetarian, one from a vegan PETA employee and one from Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman, Foer allows the individuals their voice, absent dilution. One of his most irresistible uses of this approach is the essay titled, “I’m a vegan who builds slaughterhouses”. Really --- how can you not want to read that?

Which is not to say that Foer doesn’t have a voice. He does, and uses it bluntly as he talks about eating meat, factory farming and occasionally takes Michael Pollan to task for “copping out”. Foer coveys his message in an unapologetic tone, seeming not to care whether the reader agrees with him or not. I find that a much more appealing approach than one where it’s obvious that the author is trying to convince you that you must get on board with what they’re telling you and follow them into battle.

Finally, I must comment on the chapter pages. I have no idea who came up with these clever, profound illustrations, but they continued to stick with me long after the chapter was read. Far too often books on this topic use wrenching photos or illustrations that many folks find so unsettling that the visuals overshadow any message that accompanies them. Foer neatly avoided the easy “get” for something I found far more compelling.

Whether you continue eating animals or not after reading Foer’s work is something you can decide for yourself. Whatever choice you make, you’ll have far more knowledge about what eating animals entails than you had before you began. Even if, like me, you’ve read plenty of other tomes on the subject and believe you’ve heard all there was to say.

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