The first question that comes to mind before reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is: Why?
The book’s primary topic—the ins and outs of animal factory farming—has been covered at length this decade by several well-known authors; among them are rank-and-file journalists Eric Schlosser (Food Inc., Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), both of whom have brought the sins of the food industry into mainstream, pop culture like no one has since Upton Sinclair.
However, Foer and his contemporaries differ in several key ways (something which he addresses), many of which stem from the distinctions between primarily being a novelist, but also secondarily being a journalist.
Drawing inspiration from the gratuitous, shocking detail of Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (pretty much the great-grandfather of food-industry journalistic exposes, despite being a work of fiction), Schlosser and Pollan lay in front of us the literal “Naked Lunch,” revealing everything we never wanted to know about how the food we eat reached our plate.
Foer does this too, but the facts he presents are sufficiently juxtaposed with personal stories—his own and those of people he met writing the book—and philosophic anecdotes. There are even long passages written by those who directly oppose his views.
In short, he is attempting to frame the real world in a way that is clearly non-fiction, but also emblematic of the rich, complicated and chaotic world he depicts within his novels. This means not just throwing information at a reader, but also using this information to question the meaning of our humanity.
This aura of contemplation varies much with the overall mood of visceral disgust perpetuated by the works of Schlosser and Pollan. This is not meant pejoratively, since both men are able to convey their points to great effect as well. Foer just takes the next step.
And what then do we make of a world where it is almost guaranteed that the turkey we ate was produced via artificial insemination because its parents were genetically mutated to the point where they were unable to have sex? What can we do to fix a world where poor conditions in slaughterhouses have dehumanized workers to the point where they sexually violate animals with large metal poles? Foer’s conclusion is unequivocal and one with which I agree: Vegetarianism.
This thesis may be enough to turn away several potential readers. However, it should be pointed out that the intent of this book is not necessarily to make the reader vegetarian convert (although Foer would undoubtedly be pleased with this result), but to reinvigorate discourse concerning an ethical subject that is still somehow criminally ignored by the general populous.
Even devout carnivores should agree that predation—which is natural, even for humans—very rarely, if ever, excuses excessive brutality.