You can agree wholeheartedly with huge chunks of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s sprawling and stirring new pro-vegetarian polemic, Eating Animals, and at the same time find it pompous and annoying. A few years ago, humbled by the birth of his first child (this alone causes a twinge of readerly alarm), Foer began an exhaustive investigation into the morality of eating meat. He interviewed cattle ranchers and PETA activists, visited an industrial poultry plant, and then poured the results of his research into this compelling, earnest, overly cerebral, and endlessly debatable opus.
First, the compelling: Foer is outraged by industrial farming practices that produce 99 percent of the meat in the United States, and rightly so. While the filth and cruelty of so-called factory farms have been amply documented by the likes of Michael Pollan, Foer brings an invigorating moral clarity to the topic. ”If we are at all serious about ending factory farming, then the absolute least we can do is stop sending checks to the absolute worst abusers,” he writes.
He is correct, and his unflinching insistence that we take stringent moral inventory of our eating habits constitutes this book’s great strength. It is when Foer gets into more generalized arguments for vegetarianism (he has become a strict vegetarian himself) that his logic grows shaky and some of his attitudes appear priggish. Foer, repulsed by his visit to a small independent slaughterhouse, refuses to eat the ham he is hospitably offered. Likewise, he is upset by practices that fall well short of the industrial horrific, everything from the mail ordering of baby chicks to the neutering of cattle. He clearly hasn’t raised chickens or spent much quality time with bulls, and his self-righteous commentary on topics like these will be grating to anyone who has. His regular and irrelevant references to Kafka and Derrida don’t help.
But while your ethical standards regarding the treatment of animals may be less (or more) exacting than Foer’s, his book will, at the very least, make you think hard about what those standards are, and why you are — or are not — living by them. B