Review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Chapter One: "Storytelling"

This is the first in a series of weekly posts dedicated to our book club selections. Tune in every Tuesday to discuss the pressing issues raised by these authoritative and popular authors. Whether you have the time to read along with me or not, I'd love to hear your two cents. To pick up your copy of "Eating Animals" at amazon.com, follow the link at the end of the post.

On page 13, Foer writes, “Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.”

The majority of people in this country eat animals every day. The majority of people also drive cars, take showers and read the newspaper. But if Safran Foer wrote a book called "Driving Cars" or "Reading Newspapers," my guess is that most people would not immediately assume he was making a case against these activities. Why, in the case of "eating animals," do we assume the context is negative? For one thing, most of us have developed friendships with animals at one point in our lives, and we don’t want to lump them in the same category as the ones that end up on our plate. Even with the ones we do eat, we have to divorce ourselves from the reality of what we are eating. We don’t like to think that we are “eating cows” or “eating pigs.” Instead, we are “eating beef” and “eating pork.” My impression is that most people have an innate sense that eating animals is wrong, and so even stating the fact in simple terms is enough to make them defensive. As Foer points out, “just because conversations about meat tend to make people feel cornered, not all vegetarians are proselytizers.” (6)

I’ve noticed some of my friends who choose not to eat meat are sensitive about being perceived as pushing it on other people. When it comes up in conversation, they are quick to downplay their reasons, saying only, “It’s just what works for me.” Perhaps because they sense that the gruesome reality of eating animals is in the back of everyone’s mind, they feel bad for bringing it up. It’s natural to want to make others feel comfortable, but ultimately, if we have their best interests at heart, we will tell them the truth, regardless of how they might perceive us.

“Eating animals” sounds strange because it is strange. In his fiction, Safran Foer is known for his ability to manipulate the English language to fantastic and engrossing effect. Here, he takes a simple phrase and states it plainly, and the impact is just as great.