Feb 22, 2010

"Eating Animals" a Must Read

If you haven't read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, you really should check it out. I've been vegetarian for about ten years, with periods of veganism or near veganism during that time. As a lover of non-human animals, I'd say I became vegetarian for animal rights reasons. I stay vegetarian because I love animals, but also because eating meat American-style makes zero ecological sense. This book, Eating Animals, really drove this point home for me, and also brought into focus issues of public health that I never truly understood.

My relationships with animals, farms, and meat have been diverse. I come from a family of hunters and have eaten fish and game such as deer, frog, rabbit, and turkey. I hunted and fished with my dad as a kid. Those experiences were instrumental in my development of a holistic land ethic.  My grandpa raised about 350 head of cattle in Missouri on about 400 acres of pasture, which defined a lot of my mom's childhood and attitude toward food. He died in 1992, right around the time when my uncles on my dad's side started losing their hog and dairy farms to corporate agriculture. Guess who grows soy for hogs and cows these days. My parents met as workers at a restaurant corporation for which my dad still works. My older sister worked there. My five plus years working there as a teen surprisingly turned me into an anti-capitalist but not a solid vegetarian.

That came at eighteen or nineteen, depending on whether you mark time by attempts or purity. As I wasn't trying for asceticism, I usually say eighteen. I read The Jungle as a teen, Animal Liberation  at twenty. I went to PETA conferences on veganism. I stickered supermarket turkeys with scary images and startling statements on Thanksgiving. I read Fast Food Nation, remembering that my entire family was wrapped up in this crazy drama of the American diet. I remembered my uncle Hank's nursing sows on their sides and trying to cuddle a runt that shit all over me. I remembered the distended udders of Holsteins at my aunt Gail's place, where I would later solidify my extremes for animals by using her sewing scissors to cut matts off of a border collie. (Not so cool with Aunt Gail, who is an amazing quilter.) I owned my relationships to meat for years, occasionally pissing people off at dinner or holidays, but always feeling honest.

Then I kinda became one of those vegetarians who tells herself she doesn't have to think about meat consumption because she's not part of it. My friends and family were probably stoked, and it was certainly easier. I allowed myself what Foer refers to as "forgetting". I let myself be as divorced from the impacts of American-style meat as a typical American. I felt a little less pain than I did in the days of my early twenties when I routinely stated that I didn't "eat carcass". I didn't watch films like Food Inc and I never read Omnivore's Delimma because, for me at least, there is no dilemma. I knew where I stood.

I hate being bombarded with the horrors of factory farming. I'm very sympathetic toward animals, as anyone who knows me would verify. I had many companion animals as a kid, and my dad always protected my sensitivity when we had to euthanize a beloved family animal. That was the right thing to do, and though I've matured, I can't really digest the horrors of factory farming. I regurgitate in tears and sobs that might make you consider whether I'm a reasonable advocate for a sensible diet or just an animal rights extremist. So I don't watch movies about food. I don't read articles or books exposing factory farming. A lot of it feels like disaster porn. I don't really empathize with a director who tells me to give a shit about individual animals while displaying the horrors of their treatment, the indignity of their individual lives. I say that knowing that some people really need to see that shit. People in denial need to own the violence of their food. But I'll say that I can be an advocate without those images, so I don't watch films on food.

But a few months ago I started seeing reviews of Eating Animals that piqued my interest. There were enough articles to convince me to request the book from the SF Public Library, where the hold list was about 50 people long. I finally got the book 3 weeks ago, which turned out to be right around the time I'd convinced myself that I was ready to read it with an open mind. And I'm really glad I did. I read it slowly over my three week loan period, in part because bits were painful, and in part because bits were too beautiful not to savor.

I don't really know what to tell you to compel you to read the book, except that it reminded me to be honest about food. Foer wrote openly about factory farming without relying on the cheap horrors of the industry to engage his readers. Instead he emphasized reason and intention, which resonate much more deeply with me. He drew an honest picture of modern "farming", one that discredits our fanciful images of farms like my grandfather's, which are not the ones that feed us today. Foer drew a global, holistic picture of farming, emphasizing ecology but also raising issues of equity, worker's rights, and public health.

Frankly, Eating Animals, is the best book I've read in years. I can't wait until I can find it used so I can have a copy in my personal library. I resisted my inclination to underline or annotate the SF Public Library's copy, but will enjoy doing so when I can read my own copy some day.


Beth! said...

I've been hesitant to read the book for the same reasons (and similar to why I am having such a hard time reading "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee") - but now that I've seen both you and Kyle give it such high marks, I guess I'll check it out.

rachel kesel said...

Perhaps the content of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is similarly "forgotten"? Thanks for mentioning it, I just requested it from the library. Does Kyle have a blog??
When I was reading "Eating Animals" I did myself a favor by skipping a paragraph or page if necessary. The thing that made that ok for me was that Foer kinda takes the view that we all know that meat is fucked up. So he doesn't linger on the horrors to convince us that it's violent, instead he tries to relate the horror to us in a somewhat emotional, cognitive way.

Stephanie Stebbins said...

I will definitely check it out!

Siamak said...

Thak you for your thoughts.
A great post, I'll visit you again.

Gypsy said...

Its a wonderful book isn't it. I too am reading the library copy, and it has increased my comitment to vegetarianism substantially. Like you I find often books and films about the industry are a kind of 'disaster porn' which rather than opening us to the suffering actually kind of repels me. But eating animals I found was able to carry the horrors in a way that I could handle, and was moved by.

Unknown said...

Have you ever read The Vegetarian Myth?


It certainly takes a different approach to the issue.

rachel kesel said...

I'm no fan of Keith. Her book is infamously loaded with factual errors, despite her copious footnotes. I've read her website and excerpts of the book. After reading detailed reviews, I opted not to read the book. I don't think I could ever take her seriously, not about food or anything else. Her persona reached me before the book, and a lot of her statements and ideas (about food and more) are unforgivable.