When my review of “Eating Animals” gets 300 likes on GoodReads, I’ll write a blog post about it.
301 LIKES. SHIT.
I guess, let’s do this.
This isn’t as much of a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book as it is a reaction to it–a reaction to the reactions of others, even. The title of this book garners a reaction from people who haven’t read it and who may never read it. Just carry Eating Animals around for a few days and you’ll understand. There’s an assumption that a book about eating animals is going to tell you that it is in some way wrong to eat animals–whether for the welfare of animals or for your own welfare–and most people “don’t want to hear it.” We know something is wrong with meat today–with how completely estranged we are from the process that turns animal into product. We have that general feeling and we don’t want the specifics. We don’t want to face being held accountable for what we know. We don’t want to think about eating animals. Why not? If there’s no shame in it, then why is there such an aversion created by the title alone?
I say “we” because I’m guilty of the same, and it took this book to make me realize it. It took seeing how the people around me wanted nothing to do with a book that might challenge their eating habits. Allow me to explain with a little bit of backstory here, which is irrelevant to the book itself, but entirely relevant to my reading of the book:
I’ve been a vegetarian for close to five years. I’ve had a moral qualm about eating animals since I first made the connection between the meat on my plate and the animals in my backyard. (I grew up on a farm. There were cows and they had much happier lives than most do these days, though I never saw what end they met once my parents sold them.) Why then did I only become vegetarian at the age of eighteen? (I mean, obviously, I pieced together that burgers were made from cows long before then; I wasn’t that slow of a child.) My various attempts to give up meat failed. I’m not sure why. The obvious answer would be that I had weak willpower, but I think that’s a cop out. When vegetarianism did stick, I didn’t feel any more self-empowered. In fact, the attempt that succeeded started as a fluke. I had no intention of seeing it through. I found out about PETA’s 30-day challenge and I was curious. “I can abstain from eating animals for a month,” I reasoned. When the month was over, I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. No craving for meat was strong enough to compensate for the amount of suffering inflicted on animals. (What can I say? I’m a bleeding heart, a pussy, whatever.)
I surrounded myself with literature and images of slaughterhouses long enough to fend off the desire for flesh. The desire disappeared and I felt better. I felt better because I was eating better (fresh fruit and veggies was a vast improvement over my childhood diet of Hardees and Mountain Dew). I felt better once the nagging guilt the conflict between my beliefs and my actions caused was no longer. Or so I thought.
The truth is that over the years I became lax in my beliefs. Not eating animals became more habit and preference than moral conviction. People wore down my enthusiasm. Oh, the enthusiasm was there to begin with! There’s nothing more exciting and refreshing than newfound vegetarianism! I felt better and I wanted other people to feel better, too. I thought I could help initiate that. I thought that I could lead by example–I wouldn’t push my opinions down anyone’s throat, of course, because I didn’t want to be uppity about it. It doesn’t work that way, or at least it didn’t for me in rural North Carolina–in the county supporting the largest Smithfield slaughterhouse in the world, to be exact. People were interested, but only for the sake of arguing. Foer obviously experienced the same, writing:
“I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made. (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me.)”
There’s only so much antagonistic query I was equipped to handle at the age of eighteen. To be perfectly blunt, I stopped giving a fuck. I decided to be a vegetarian, not explain my reasons to others, and to stop giving a fuck what others thought about it. When someone asked me why I didn’t eat meat, my responses ranged from “I don’t like being overwhelmed by choices” to “I was raped by a butcher.” When you stop giving a fuck, then people generally stop harassing you. These people aren’t that clever to begin with, so they usually don’t bother if they have to compete with another’s nonchalance.
My initial reason for not considering becoming vegan was the difficulty. I felt it was a big enough change to quit cold turkey cold turkey. Yeah, I know, there’s no excuse for my sense of humor. Over the years I should have made the necessary steps to eliminate eggs and dairy from my diet. I have no excuse for that either. I knew neither were essential to my nutrition or well being–that it was just a matter of putting forth more effort. In the back of my mind I knew, too, that my inaction was supporting animal cruelty towards laying hens, as well as indirectly promoting the veal industry. That nagging guilt was still there, but I pushed it aside.
I realized this past week that I can no longer do this. It is no longer acceptable. In fact, it never was. Nothing changed.
I was hardly beginning the book when I started to suspect that I was on the brink of a life-altering decision. Was Foer so persuasive that he alone managed to turn me vegan within the first few chapters? No. It wasn’t even the news that Natalie Portman turned vegan after reading Eating Animals, either. 😉
It was my boyfriend telling me that he “didn’t want to hear it” when I mentioned that piglets on factory farms have their testicles removed without anesthesia within the first ten days of their lives.*
It was the moment when my literature teacher asked me ifEating Animals contains information so disturbing and disgusting that she would probably never want to eat meat again; and then without pausing for a reply, she said, “I’d better not read it then.”
It was this general reaction I received coinciding with what I read that made me re-examine my own unwillingness to live by what I know–something I’ve known without needing to be told, but something I needed to be reminded of: shame. I am ashamed to be part of a system that is inexcusable.
“Not responding is a response–we are equally responsible for what we don’t do. In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle.”
What does all of this say about the book? Not much. Just read it. Throw your assumptions away, quit looking for someone else to tell you what to expect, and just read with an open mind, and a willingness not only to accept what feels right, but to take the actions necessary so that you may be at peace with yourself.
* In defense of my boyfriend–although no defense is necessary–since the conversation mentioned took place, he has agreed to read Eating Animals. Ideally, he’ll read it and never eat another bite of meat again; just as ideally, when I handed my copy of the book to my mother a few hours ago and asked her to please do me a favor and read it, she would have done so in earnest, in an attempt to understand her daughter’s lifestyle, instead of putting it down after a few pages and resuming her crossword puzzle, which although not ideal, was what actually happened. I can’t allow myself to expect much to come of it, because there’s enough disappointment in life as it is, but I am grateful for this much: that he cares enough about me to read what he would otherwise rather turn away from.
That officially concludes my “review” written on 11/12/09. BUT WAIT! I have jokes! I mean, updates. I have updates.
Update (7/6/11): He never read it. We broke up, for reasons unrelated to diet. But if you know any cute, single, straight, literate, vegan boys, send ’em my way. If they do, in fact, exist.
Update again (5/2/13):
I’m a feminist now, so I apologize for the derogatory use of the word “pussy” within the original review. If there were any point to it, I’d also amend the previous update to exclude the word “straight” and change “boys” to “men” (not the band) because it’s creepy when grown men want girls, so vice versa? There’s no point though, because I’m not looking. I’m no longer single.
We’re dating again. Everyone advises against dating an ex, but everyone can go fuck themselves. I’d like to think compassion is about second chances. For whatever more-complicated-than-that reasons, I’ve decided to give it a second go. He recently read the book. Kudos, right? Everything in its own time, or something. He’s been vegetarian since, but I announce that tentatively, because obviously, things change: you can see that in just the span of updates to this not-a-review review. I’m happy right now. I’m hopeful. I finally realized I can’t change the people I love. I can’t shake them until they see what I see if they don’t want to look, but I can tell my truth and maybe, just maybe, it will reach someone willing to take off the blinders.
What’s today’s date again? The most up-to-date update thus far:
So, spoiler alert: I’m still vegan.
I keep forgetting to celebrate my veganniversary. This past year was the first time since going vegan that I didn’t attend the Thanksgiving buffet hosted by the Triangle Vegetarian Society. I was too far away in upstate NY, interning for Farm Sanctuary. I’m okay with it because I’m trying to be less food-centric… while still remaining pretty food-centric… damn it, I can’t explain. Being vegan is confusing sometimes. Mainly, when it’s a convenient way out of explaining myself.
Sorry! No time to explain! VEGANISM!
I still revisit my initial GoodReads review to read the comments I made as I was reading Eating Animals. They’re so naive it’s comical. Take this one I wrote on November 5, 2009 for example:
“Well, his other books are made of WIN so I’m expecting great things. I just don’t know how the meat-eating readers will respond. I mean… it isn’t likely to change my life since I’m already a vegetarian, but I like his writing. I read the first few pages in a magazine before the book was released officially and it made me feel kind of passionate about being a vegetarian again.”
I didn’t have a clue! Would I have even been open to reading it had I not felt so sure that it would require no action on my part? It’s another moment frozen in time–kind of like that photo during high school biology class–that I keep coming back to because I need reminders that it didn’t always seem easy to me. I need reminders that once upon a time I, too, didn’t think there was life after cheese.
Even knowing this, I can be rather demanding of the people closest to me. I want to handcuff them to me through this journey of mine, but I know how illogical that urge is.
That ex I started dating again? His name is Matt. (I guess I’ll give him that much recognition as an individual whose life doesn’t begin and end anonymously in my book review updates.) Matt is still vegetarian as of this post. It’s been almost a full year and part of me wants to scream Y NOT VEGAN ALREADY??!
Obviously, that part of me needs to revisit this review more often as a reminder that it took me five years before I decided to transition from vegetarian to vegan. Maybe I should be a little less urgent, less jacked up on yerba mate. I am very proud of him, especially for making it through his first trollsome family Thanksgiving, but my impatience bleeds through even when I’m trying to acknowledge what a big fucking deal it is that he’s come this far in a society where apathy is the more comfortable path.
What can I say? I’m working on it.
I hope that other people will sometimes have patience with me as well. Eating, dressing, buying vegan have become second nature. It’s fairly straightforward. It’s the other-people part that can be hard. It’s especially hard coming back from three months at Farm Sanctuary–after meeting individual survivors of modern farming and witnessing their progress and sometimes their deterioration, as well as empathizing with the amazing caregivers who spend every day engaging in such emotionally taxing work–it’s hard then to come back to the non-vegan world and to be around loved ones who “get it,” but don’t act on it. I know they could act on it. The potential is there. I don’t want them to underestimate the capacity for empathy and change within themselves. Also, I don’t want them to underestimate how important it is that I am able to steal noms from their plates all of the times we go out to dinner. (On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s, like, really important.)
In conclusion, don’t forget about the book.