Monday, November 09, 2009

Eating Animals: Storytelling - the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book.

I started working in a bookstore in 2004, and immediately realized that not only do people almost always judge books by their covers, but that it's actually possible to do so with some accuracy. My fellow booksellers and I would run through the "New Releases" or "3 for 2 Paperbacks" tables playing this game, and then reading a few pages of given selections to determine the accuracies of our presuppositions. The plain fact is that publishing houses spend a good deal of time and effort creating book covers, and much can be gleaned by paying attention to the fonts, images, and colors used, as well as nuances such as the presence (or lack thereof) of review quotes on the front cover. While certainly not a perfect system, it can be a good beginning when you are faced with the millions of books to be found in the mega-books-r-us stores that now dot stripmalls across America and are simply looking for that bibliophile's holy grail: Something Good to Read.

It is in this way that I came across "Everything is Illuminated", the first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. If you haven't seen the movie, or especially if you have, you should read the book. It is far more extraordinary. Don't read it if you're easily offended though, because things happen in it that you can't imagine. Anyway, neither here nor there. Next came "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", a snapshot of the life of a nine year old (vegan) boy who has lost his father in one of the great tragedies of this decade. Very moving, brilliantly written, and not nearly as depressing as it sounds. You should read this one too.

If you can't tell yet, Foer pretty much immediately made it to my list of favorite authors and has not fallen from it - a long list though it may be. And now he's gone and done something that surprised me greatly: he's gone and written a book about eating animals.

It is, in fact, called "Eating Animals", and you've probably heard about it. It has gotten a lot of press lately. Why? For a few reasons I think. First, the obvious one is that an acclaimed fiction writier has now burst forth with this non-fiction work - not about his Jewish ancestry which would have seemed to be a logical progression, but about the fairly hot topic of the ethics of food. What with the likes of Time Magazine and Oprah talking about this stuff now, it's something that mainstream western culture is actually beginning to take notice of.

But for another thing, I think it's simply that a book on this kind of subject is coming from such an unexpected source overall. We expect Michael Pollan, investigative food journalist, to come out with one of his best-selling foodie diatribes every few years. We expect Peter Singer and similar thinkers to talk to us about animals as sentient beings. We expect Marion Nestle to educate us all with her wisdom of moderation and nutritional knowledge. We expect the new "miracle diet" and "magic curing foods for every disease" books - out just in time for the holiday season! What we do not expect, though, is a thoughtful and balanced examination of whether or not we should be eating what we, as a culture, are eating, from an author who has previously just been around to entertain us... which seems to be precisely what we have on our hands.

Is it a vegan book? No. Does it rail against eating meat, and try to convince its readers to become vegetarian at once? I don't believe so. What it does do, though, is attempt to get its audience to think about the food they are putting in their mouths, and why, and how.

Is it worth reading? Well I certainly hope so. I was so hot to read it that I actually shelled out for the hardcover - something I never, ever do. Normally I'll wait a year or more for the paperback, thank you. But this book just struck me as too important not to read immediately. I need to know what he is telling people: whether I agree and applaud, or whether I must start a letter-writing campaign to his NYU office the moment I'm done reading. I have a feeling that this book will be powerful, that people will read it who normally don't think about these things, specifically because while they would never read Peter Singer they will read Jonathan Safran Foer.

I haven't read much yet, but there are two short passages that I would like to share with you. In this first one, Foer tells us about the beginning and end of his initial bout of vegetarianism:
Her intention might or might not have been to convert us to vegetarianism - just because conversations about meat tend to make people feel cornered, not all vegetarians are proselytizers - but being a teenager, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full telling of this particular story. Without drama or rhetoric, she shared what she knew.

My brother and I looked at each other, our mouths full of hurt chickens, and had simultaneous how in the world could I have never thought of that before and why on earth didn't someone tell me? moments. I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words...

My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyielding in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered, and quietly died. I never thought of a response to our babysitter's code [of not hurting things], but found ways to smudge, diminish, and forget it. Generally speaking, I didn't cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough. Pass the chicken, I'm starving.
In this second passage, Foer is discussing his life before he became a father, when his dedication to vegetarianism had still not quite firmed. It strikes me as so honest, so true, so much what so many of us struggled with on our journeys to becoming vegetarian and eventually vegan. I believe it's even more universally true than that, something that will be identified with in almost everyone who reads it, who is honest with himself:
"Of course our wedding wasn't vegetarian, because we persuaded ourselves that it was only fair to offer animal protein to our guests, some of whom had traveled great distances to share our joy. And we ate fish on our honeymoon, but we were in Japan, and when in Japan... And back in our new home, we did occasionally eat burgers and chicken soup and smoked salmon and tuna steaks. But only every now and then. Only whenever we felt like it.

And that, I thought, was that. And I thought that it was just fine. I assumed we'd maintained a diet of conscientious inconsistency. Why should eating be any different from any other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occasionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat."
Anything, or most anything, anyway, can be justified in our minds. Justified, and then ignored. Pushed to the corners, hidden in gray places. But those actions that we cannot look in the face when brought into the light of day deserve some re-analysis, don't they? Because left to their own devices, eventually they begin to gnaw - even from those far off, peripheral perches, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. What Foer seems to find is that his first son drags his lesser, hidden actions out into the bright sunlight, holds them up to his face, and asks, "why, daddy?" Daddy, in order to have better answers, wants to have better actions to begin with.

I've only read the first chapter. I'll post updates, let you know how it goes. Please have your pens ready for letters of protest... or of praise. It's entirely possible that I may tell you that you have to read this book too. Just think - that'd be three for three.

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