Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm not really "up" on veg*n literature and media. I still have yet to get through all of Earthlings. While I can say that I was a herbivore in-the-making for years, believe it or not watching and then reading Fast Food Nation was what finally pushed me to go vegetarian. And that is as moderate as it gets, as Eric Schlosser isn't even vegetarian. It was only after I was vegetarian that I had more direct contact with literature on the horrors of the factory farm and its implications for human rights and the environment. (For the record, what finally turned me vegan was a plate of 3-cheese nachos at the beach that made me violently, violently ill).

I know I should be more aware of the research and I try to be. I was far more active in this regard when I very first embarked on veg*sm, as I needed to learn and I needed to stay motivated. Watching a chicken get her beak ripped off makes one a lot less likely to stop at KFC for dinner (at least I hope it does?).

I just have a very strong emotional and physiological reaction when interacting with the information. It makes me distressed and depressed (like it should, really). It garners within me not only a sense of helplessness but also puts me in a state of hostility toward the way our world works. Neither of which I believe are healthy or productive to promoting something I am so passionate about. I know this is not an appropriate excuse. If an omnivore told me that learning about factory farming makes them uncomfortable I would tell them to suck it up buttercup - if they wanted to continue supporting the industry by eating meat and dairy or, alternatively, stop eating meat and dairy.

If you're vegan, is it okay if you're not up-to-date on all the animal cruelty information that exists? If it makes you hostile and disenchanted, like it does me?

While I like to think of myself as having a right to not suffer psychological discomfort because I already AM vegan, I am aware that this logic is flawed and there is always more we can be doing for the causes we believe in. And I am flawed. But know that I am trying, even if it is just a matter of keeping this silly little blog to show people that we vegans love to eat and have fun and carry on like everyone mission here is nothing more than showing people that going vegan is not an impossibility, nor is it difficult. And in the meantime I am so thankful for the men and women out there that are much stronger than I, that are either more psychologically stable or are more willing to sacrifice that sense of comfort in order to get our message out there. I am inspired, everyday.

I had been meaning to read this particular contribution to veg*n research since it came out a few months ago and have finally gotten around to it. I wasn't sure what to expect. I wasn't sure how extreme or moderate it would be. I was scared it was going to be really graphic (which at times it is, although not as much as other vegan literary works). But Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favourite fiction authors (Everything is Illuminated is so, so, so incredible) and when I learned he was writing a book called Eating Animals I knew it was something I couldn't miss.

The book details much of which most of us vegans already know (but the general public may not) - the horrific conditions of factory farms, the shit that's in the meat people consume on a daily basis (what I say shit I am not being crass, I literally mean shit), the resulting environmental degradation and the devastating impact on human health and wellbeing. He also touches on the outright ridiculousness of such terms as "free range" and "family farm" (which more often than not actually stand for the direct opposite of that which you think they stand for).

What I particularly appreciate about this book is Foer's control and his attempts at respect for those he is working with, regardless of their particular stances. This is by no means an easy task, especially for someone who, by virtue of embarking on this research, comes to them with a particular stance on a certain issue. Personally, I'm not sure how I would react confronting a rancher as he is hauling cattle off to a slaughterhouse. While (to my knowledge) Foer is vegetarian (and not vegan), I still think this book raises very important questions yet is not hostile in the slightest and is subsequently more easily accessible to mainstream (read: non-vegan) audiences. A characteristic I find very important, as we vegans often build walls around ourselves, rendering us difficult to approach at times.

His moderate stance may be a source of criticism among other vegans, but I find it to be a strength in this case. Foer is inquisitive but respectful and does his best to represent the vegan - vegetarian - animal welfare advocate - omnivore (and whatever else) spectrum. As opposed to the black-or-white notion that vegans and omnivores always have been and always will be polar opposites, Foer talks with a vegetarian rancher and a vegan slaughterhouse builder (which I admit I scoffed at when reading the chapter headings but closed the book with a far less extreme response) and a host of folks in between that are omnivores but fight diligently for legitimately humane treatment for the animals our society demands to eat.

There has been some criticism regarding Foer's focus on his own thoughts and feelings as he engaged in this research as opposted to strict statistics, facts and discussions on ethics. Maybe it's because I'm a blogger and spend my time here discussing my own experiences and thoughts (as opposed to any kind of scientific research), but I like this aspect of his book. I find it personable. It shows personal struggle: a new father grappling with the issues we all encounter three times a day when we sit down to eat. I don't think it's fair to fault him for this.

I really appreciated the struggles he faced regarding dietary choices as a result of becoming a father. I don't have children, but I would imagine when you have a baby you take nothing for granted. You take no one's word for it. You want to provide the best possible life for that child and you begin thinking about things you didn't think about before. Foer, like pretty much every other parent, is asking these questions because he wants to provide for his son, not necessarily because he wants to start a revolution. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to survive and be good. No matter how often you were told how special you were as a kid, the god honest truth is that the vast majority of us are just average. Ordinary. Most of us aren't going to change the world. But we have the capacity to change OUR worlds and the worlds of those around us, those we love, our children. There is no fault in trying to genuinely take care of your family and admit that that is your purpose for taking part in what you take part in, as Foer does within this book.

Questioning giving meat and dairy to children is a very recent phenomenon and still far from the norm, so while we vegans think of Foer as a moderate, I'd imagine the majority of the public would consider him an extremist liberal for not feeding his child meat. I can't count how many newspaper articles I've read equating veganism with neglect - yet no one questions the hormone and antibiotic-laden food-esque substances we attain at the drive thru and supermarket freezer aisle that we willingly allow our children to consume on a weekly, often daily, basis. Foer serves as a voice for all of us trying to make the best decisions for our families, even though the best decision is not always the one we like the most or the one that is easiest to achieve.

What I find to be a particular strength of this book is Foer's acknowledgement of eating as a profoundly social act. All of our stories, the ones signifying who we are and where we came from, in some way or another pay hommage to the act of breaking bread. Because eating is so definitive of our history, our culture and our identity, deciding to refrain from eating those things that once were a part of the very fiber that makes you YOU means breaking tradition. And often grieving the loss of that tradition.

Changing the way you eat means changing who you are. It means calling attention to yourself as someone who has changed; it means potentially offending the people who you love and who love you and are showing you their love by giving you a plate of food that you ate your whole life but now have decided not to. Being vegan means I'll never get to have my grandma's schnitzel again, or my sister-in-law's Christmas turkey, or my mom's rolo cheesecake, things that came to define certain times and events in my life. While we vegans often keep our guard up regarding how we feel about sacrifice (in an effort to keep the "veganism is so hard" claims at bay) and instead focus on how awesome veganism is (and it is), I think it is fair for us to grieve the loss of certain aspects of ourselves while celebrating our new life paths.

I developed an interest in going vegetarian (and later vegan) as an extension of my stance on human rights, only to later develop an awareness of animal issues. As such, I am deeply offended when someone asks me how I can care more about animals than I do about people. It surprises me that people fail to see the connections between our overly indulgent western factory-farmed-meat-based diet and the plight of millions of humans in the developing world. And the abuses of the poor right here at home in the name of providing cheap meat. And the abuses of those not-so-poor who are now test subjects in the "how much crap can we put in this and still call it food" corporate experiment. I thoroughly appreciate Foer's focus on not only animal rights, but the profound connection between animal rights and human rights.

The time of ignorance is over. There is enough literature out there now (if Foer is too moderate for you, try Slaughterhouse). We have now moved into a time of indifference - or have we all? Foer reminds us that history is not destiny, and we vote for the treatment of animals (and the treatment of our environment and the treatment of ourselves and other humans) with our forks.

Although he is not vegan (and I hope he'll consider it in the future), I give this book the This is Vegan: Seal of Approval. I recommend books to people all the time, and if you only take one of my suggestions, please let it be this one. If you live in the area I'll happily lend you my copy so that you can read it (just ignore the rainbow of highlighted sentences and my sloppy writing in the margins). Also check out Everything is Illuminated, because it is just so cool.


taleoftwovegans said...

What a good review! I haven't finished this book, but I've loved what I've read from it. I too, get very upset (dare I say hostile? I think you hit the nail on the head with that one..) with the state things are in, and how ignorant the people around me are. I actually bought this book for my (very non-veg) mother for Christmas (because I'm pushy like that), and she gave it to me! (I'm not really sure what she thought giving it to me would achieve since, you know, I don't eat animals - which isn't to say I'm not happy to have my own copy!) Anyways, she definitely hasn't read it, and I am getting tired of her "but I do enough good for world already" excuses - you've definitely covered that with your animal/human rights point - they are not mutually exclusive! The human rights side of veganism is incredibly important. Anyways, I definitely agree that this is a fantastic AND approachable book. And an awesome review! :) -Eve

Mary said...

Thank you!

It's very difficult to walk the fine line between "informative" and "preachy" or "pushy", although I don't ever like the term preachy. Sometimes it can seem like the smallest comment we make is construed as us being preachy and forceful with our beliefs. It can be very frustrating and lonely being a vegan (which is why I am thankful for the blogging community!)

I'm glad you liked the book as well. I've read some pretty harsh criticisms in the vegan blogosphere so I wasn't sure if I was alone in really liking this book!

Julia G. said...

Hi Mary,

Thank you for your wonderful review. I, too, have struggled with how much information to pursue already being firmly committed to veganism.

I watched the preview of Earthlings on their web site and completely broke down, as I did with a particular passage in Eating Animals, which has since rendered me unable to finish the book. I think your review will help inspire me to push through (I made it through the pig farming section and haven't been able to dive back in for a couple weeks now).

Like you I struggle with how beneficial it is to continue to read and watch so many upsetting things which cause me to start judging quite harshly all non-vegans. I also became pretty depressed and generally tense. I guess, as with all things it is a matter of balance. At times I will be able to expose myself to such things and get good information and perspective from them but I will have to be aware and take a break when I notice it making me angry, hopeless, judgmental, etc.

Anyway, I'm glad I found your blog.


Bliss Doubt said...

Great post Mary. It looks like it was hard work (but easy to read).

I think books about the problematic food animal industries should be required reading, starting in about sixth grade. Younger than that, the kids might be traumatized to know what happens to an animal destined to become food. If not in schools, then it should be required reading in culinary schools for chr**sakes.

That's what stops any discussion about vegetarianism. People do not believe, or don't want to believe, or don't want to hear about the brutal animal cruelty involved in the production of steaks and broilers. Most people who challenge me believe that they love animals, are ethical people, and that "just trying to be a good person" is far superior than my notions of boycotting cruelty.

There is no end to this conversation until knowledge of the animal cruelty escapes cover. The media doesn't cover it, school books don't cover it. You can watch six cooking shows in a row on public tv on saturdays and not one chef will talk about it. Occasionally it's covered in a book, like the one you reviewed, but who reads books nowadays?

Thank you Mary.

Mary said...

Julia - thank you. I definitely recommend motoring through. Like you, I did have to set it down at particularly harsh parts. I think there is a delicate balance between being substantially informed and becoming a "burnt out" activist. It's important to maintain awareness but at the same time, personal health and wellbeing are important too and if you do become too burnt out and too cynical it isn't productive to the cause either.

Bliss - You touch on something so important here. Until I was vegan I didn't realize how little dialogue there is in the mainstream world regarding animal issues. It's not even on the many instances it is still considered so taboo. In a time where we have made much progress with regard to other issues, animal issues remain underground in a lot of cases.

I was just thinking the other day how in tune children are with animals. It doesn't seem to matter the child...they know about animals and they learn about them in their little children's books (can't count how many books about "farms" are on the market for kids). Yet we are lying to them every single day about what they are eating..and I definitely agree with you about how traumatizing it would be to expose them to adult discussions on animal issues, but at the same time I think children should be aware of what it is they are eating and what that means, in the most age appropriate way possible (Farm Sanctuary has an awesome book about this, I believe). A hundred years ago it would be much less of an issue, as so many children grew up on farms and knew what was going on. Today we are just so distant from our food that we haven't the slightest clue what it takes to get to our plates.

Of course if you do decide to let your child know about animals and food you then run the risk of being "that parent" - the one who other parents hate because their kid announced to the class what they were eating and now THEIR children may question what they are eating (God forbid). It's such a frustrating slippery slope.

Kristen said...

Reading Fast Food Nation is what turned me vegetarian too around 5 yrs ago. I don't know how I avoided the egg/dairy issue for so long although I bought mostly organic/free range etc... now that I know they mean almost nothing and better understand what an animal goes through when their offspring is taken away from them right away I have fully plunged into veganism and love it. Can't even imagine eating cheese again when a month ago I was totally addicted!

Great review of Eating Animals - I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book.
It is definitely HARD to read and see a lot of the info on factory farming and the way animals are treated in modern agriculture - but I feel sometimes that I need that image to remind me why I don't eat what everyone around me does. I'm definitely not one to stick out in any way or call attention to myself so it's hard sometimes to be so different in what I eat and I'm constantly questioned/attacked about my choices. Seeing that footage helps to spark my passion again for what I've chosen and helps gear me up to answer all those questions and remember there is so much work to be done to fix our broken food system.

Mary said...

Isn't cheese such a funny thing. I was literally terrified at the prospect of giving up cheese. I wanted to give it up for so long, but I couldn't fathom how I could live without it. After about a month or two I was wondering what the heck I had been doing for the previous 24 years of my life that I was so obsessed with something that is quite gross, when you think about it.

I completely agree...interacting with the literature and the media definitely helps center you, and solidify your stance on veganism and it also ignites dedication to the cause that can often go by the way side when life gets busy. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book!

chris said...

awesome post!! i have been a vegetarian for about 4 years now and for reasons i cant understand, it was a huge blow to my family and friends. i am currently transitioning into veganism. and i know that many will have plenty to say about that. but i stand true to my beliefs and i can not live my life contributing to the insane cruelty to animals. like you stated i feel helpless at times, but i know that at least i have made the decision that i will not consume animals and that in some small way i may be helping them.

this paragraph completely resonated with me:

I just have a very strong emotional and physiological reaction when interacting with the information. It makes me distressed and depressed (like it should, really). It garners within me not only a sense of helplessness but also puts me in a state of hostility toward the way our world works. Neither of which I believe are healthy or productive to promoting something I am so passionate about. I know this is not an appropriate excuse. If an omnivore told me that learning about factory farming makes them uncomfortable I would tell them to suck it up buttercup - if they wanted to continue supporting the industry by eating meat and dairy or, alternatively, stop eating meat and dairy.

the cruelty to animals and the lack of that knowledge among the general public is so infuriating to me. and for those who say they know the cruelty (which they really don't know the true reality of it) but they can't read about it or watch it because it's too hard, well i say just because you choose to ignore it doesn't mean it isn't happening. how people can be ok with themselves at the end of the day, when they are even somewhat aware of the cruelty,is completely beyond my comprehension. i feel that these people are weak and selfish. (this is a view that doesn't go over well with others). but truly, if they know the pain it causes animals but they continue to consume animals because they 'just like the taste of meat too much', then they are truly selfish and weak individuals in my eyes. i LOVE the taste of meat. however, i can not bring myself to eat it anymore. simply because my morals trump my taste buds.

however, if i try to communicate a glimmer of my thoughts and beliefs--after being attacked for being a vegetarian--people tell me i am preaching and being pushy. it is RIDICULOUS! i will not say a word to people, but once they find out i am a vegetarian, they attack me and try to make me look like the unreasonable one for not eating meat. and i find this to be the case. we are called pushy and preachy (two things i try very hard not to be) when we are trying to defend our beliefs, but non-vegtarians can attack us all they want and somehow that is ok. it is very infuriating to me.

anyway i feel like i am ranting and just rambling so i will stop. but thanks for the post and all the others who commented. it's always nice to be reminded that there are really other people out there that share my thoughts and beliefs.

Mary said...

It's always amused me that the people who tend to call us vegans "preachy" usually make the comment as THEY are preaching to US about why veganism is wrong. How ironic.

Hostility stemming from disagreements in ideology are as old as time. Not only between veg*ns and omnivores, but there is a lot of hostility between vegans and vegetarians as well and in my most humble opinion, while I understand the frustrations, I find it to be completely counterproductive and something I continually try and work on. It was very difficult when I first turned veg because I had this new awareness and could not understand how no one else was interested...but it is very humbling to remember the many years that I myself spent as an omnivore and as such I do find it slightly hypocritical to be overally cynical with regard to people's food choices. This awareness keeps the smugness at bay.

While I have come across some hostility from omnivores I have generally found most people to be at the very list inquisitive, and as of late, quite supportive. I think that's helped in combating feelings of extreme pessimism. It can be so frustrating to encounter such blatant disregard for very serious issues, but at the same time I think our mantra of compassion needs to be extended to our human counterparts too. The best we can do is be a positive example of a herbivorous lifestyle and not allow ourselves and our concerns to be pushed into the background.

Thanks so much for your comment! Best of luck with your transition into veganism...if I can be of any support at all do not hesitate to email me!

Stonzi said...

i just came across your blog so i'm going through a few posts that have caught my eye. all i can say is that the more i read, the more i think we were separated at birth, lol. :)

regarding your comment about caring about animals v caring about people: i am a major animal rights activist/supporter. quite frankly, i prefer the company of animals to people. a friend once commented to me, "how can anyone be surprised by how we treat animals? just look at how we treat humans!" i told her she had it backwards. how can we be surprised at how we treat humans (who insult us, offend us, annoy us, attack us, repulse us for what ever reason) when we treat animals (who go about their business out in the wild or just want love and attention from us at home)as poorly as we do. abuse starts with animals. it has been proven that children who abuse animals generally become the bullies on the playground who then grow up and have a higher statistical rate of becoming criminals, spousal abusers and child abusers. if we can teach someone to respect and care for creatures that are at our mercy then it will be easier to teach someone how to respect a fellow human. animals are not vindictive and vengeful. animals won't steal your identity, your spouse or you car. they won't talk about you behind your back. they won't screw you over at work. they are not here for our pleasure or entertainment or to be used as part of research to enhance our lives. they are fellow living creatures who have their own communities with their own rules and hierarchies. i don't know why humans cannot wrap their heads around that idea.

anyway, sorry for the rant. enjoy your vegan journey! :)

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