Eating Animals: not a game changer, but really important

November 13, 2009

By now you’ve probably read a bit about Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals, but if not, here’s a quick recap: the author, who previously stuck to fiction, was inspired by the birth of his son to take a deep look at where food comes from, specifically animal-based foods. What follows is several hundred pages of writing on and around the topic of, well, eating animals.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the project I was more than a little worried that this was going to be a bandwagon book, riding on the past successes of stuff like Fast Food Nation, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (I’ve read the first one but not the other two.) Basically, there are a whole lot of ways that this could amount to a bunch of mental masterbation wherein the author proves how clever and insightful he is without inspiring any need for actual change. Worse yet, from the vagueness of the title, there might even be a case/rationalization/excuse for meat eating contained inside.

Not to throw spoilers your way, but my fears were thankfully unfounded. The book’s really well written and manages to make a lot of good points within the framework that’s laid out.

Now, the author is vegetarian (having spent many years bouncing between that and a conventional diet,) and even though reports suggest he’s considering veganism, I think it’s important that this is an “outsider” book. Very few people in the meat eating world want to read yet another vegan activist’s rant about how everything they’re doing is wrong, and Jonathan Safran Foer manages to come across as a real person who simply took the time to find out where his former food was coming from.

That said, the focus of the book is largely, as the title implies, about food containing animals, and while there’s a little bit of attention to battery cages and veal, the milk and egg industries get a bit of a pass. With a focus on cruelty, birds get the most attention, cows not so much. There are also a number of interviews/essays with animal farmers, who all seem like very nice people, but I believe the book makes the case that these nice people simply can’t feed the world without resorting to cruelties that we should find unacceptable.

With an early November release date, it’s probably not a coincidence that the book covers Thanksgiving a fair bit, but I think it’s an effective centerpiece for a lot of the arguments made in the book. Thanksgiving is a holiday that typically involves a bird who’s been treated like crap and bred to a point where a “natural state” is pretty much impossible, and it also involves some of North America’s deepest food-based traditions. I don’t think that many, if any early readers of the book will both be inspired enough and have the courage to invoke a vegan or vegetarian Thanksgiving feast this year, but it may well plant the seeds for future growth.

Eating Animals isn’t a “game changer” from an activism standpoint, but it’s an important milestone. For years now we’ve been seeing an increasing transparency into how factory farming works and some decent growth in media coverage in movies, TV shows, and books like this. At the same time, while awareness is certainly on the rise, veganism doesn’t seem to be. I haven’t figured out if everyone’s simply doing it wrong, or if a critical mass of knowledge needs to be reached at which point society will just say “enough,” or if there’s a key piece of the puzzle yet to come out that will put it all together for people, but Eating Animals certainly isn’t hurting the equation and will probably save a number of animals’ lives over the next few years.

If you’re already vegan, you might enjoy the book for a reminder of why that is, but the odds are you won’t find anything new in here. What you will find are talking points and a common point of reference with your friend, neighbour, or co-worker who eats animals but also reads books like Eating Animals, and in that regard you can be the best “next step” possible.

Eating Animals is in stores now, so please check out your local independent bookstore, make sure your library carries it, and if you do decide to buy it off of Amazon you can help raise it on the charts, which gets it more attention. As I write this it’s the #45 bestseller, and like I said earlier, I don’t know if a book that’s against factory farmed food in the top ten will necessarily convert people to veganism in droves, but I don’t think it’ll hurt.

(And yes, the Amazon link is an affiliate one, as are others on this page, which means if 10 of you buy the book through it I think I can buy a Clif Bar or something, but it also helps me to track stats. Which makes me hungry for that Clif Bar.)

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