Eating Animals is genuinely one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read, as well as making the best case for vegetarianism I've ever encountered. This is mainly because Foer, as he says many times throughout the book, isn't trying to make a case for vegetarianism, but rather trying to weigh up all the evidence and decide what the best eating choices are for himself and his young family. Obviously I'm in a place at the moment where I don't really want to eat animals anyway (see: giving up meat for Lent) so in a lot of ways this was the best possible book to read at the best possible time. But also, as well as that, it's amazing.
Firstly, there's the writing. I've read both of Foer's novels, and while I thought the writing itself was AMAZING, I always felt like something about the story was lacking (form, or structure, or something). In non-fiction, where there is still a story to tell but it's form is less clearly defined, good writing is a complete bonus, and the one thing that is guaranteed to keep me reading non-fiction (Naomi Klein and Bill Bryson, whilst wildly different non-fiction writers are both amazing). Eating Animals, then, quite aside from the issues it raises, is a really well set out, clearly thought out argument; and it is, of course amazingly written. All of this, then, contributes to the effectiveness of the argument (or, as he claims, not an argument, but merely a lot of statements) that Foer has set out in this book.
And oh, the argument. The dizzying, sickening, stench filled world of factory farming, carefully described (without, I would say, a lot of sentiment) and torn down logically, carefully, and in the way a good philosophy graduate knows how. I realise that might sound like an insult depending on how you feel about philosophy majors (I feel great about them, considering my degree is a joint honours English and Philosophy one) but I mean it in the best possible way- Foer lays out all these facts about factory farming, and then lays into them, with the resulting conclusion being that he doesn't really understand how, knowing this, anyone could still eat meat from factory farms.
Except, he kind of does know how this happens, because it's something that he describes early on in the book. On relaying his previous experience of vegetarianism (which sounded fairly similar to my own- on and off, until he remembered how good bacon, or whatever, was, and started eating meat again) he describes how people have a certain mechanism that means they can forget exactly what they're eating, or at least remember something that seems more important to them, like how good having turkey on Thanksgiving makes them feel. And this made so much sense to me, because meat has been a massive part of my eating life, especially since I'm not a fan of many foods, and so the fact that it makes me feel good and tastes nice is something that mostly overrides all other thoughts when making food choices. But when that lovely experience comes out of something horrible, and I actually know about it (and believe me, I really do know about it now) do I have the right to enjoy it any more? The philosopher in me says no, as does the animal lover, but the vicious carnivore? Well, she's just going to have to shut up.
If I was going to criticise Eating Animals (the book rather than the practice) in any way, I would just have to say that Foer doesn't really go into mass cow-factory farming, which I have to assume is because he has made the decision to carry on eating dairy products. Which is his prerogative, obviously, but it feels a bit like getting fobbed off- he says that he thinks that cattle farming is the most ethical of all factory farming, but since this is like getting the best bed in Auschwitz (I'm not comparing this to the Holocaust. At all. Seriously. I just can't think of another analogy), I would have appreciated a little more investigation there. Also, some of the arguments he makes are a little bit Philosophy 101, i.e. I have heard them before, but I fully understand that most (i.e. normal) people aren't philosophy scholars so I appreciate that he had to kind of start with the basics and then move on to his own thing. He does adopt my favourite ever argument though- if people say 'well, animals are born to be farmed and to be meat for us, and they don't know any other way of life', then you say 'so if human babies were born to be farmed and make meat for us, it would be ok to eat them?' and then wait to see all the people faint. Logically, it's a top notch argument!
But anyway, in spite of those few niggles, I'm in absolute awe of Eating Animals. I would honestly recommend it to anyone, even if you feel like you'd just shrug your shoulders at the end and continue gnawing on your chicken drumstick, just because it's really so well written. For me, I'm utterly convinced about the inherent and disgusting cruelty of factory farming, and I'm fairly sure I'm off pork products for life (I did make a sausage sandwich for my dad today and was kind of drooling, but that's just learned behaviour, right?) but the important thing for me is to keep remembering the things I've learned- that the chicken on my plate lived its life in a tiny cage, was pumped full of antibiotics and basically couldn't walk, that the bacon in my sandwich was once a piglet that was stacked in a cage on top of rows of other piglets, and that factory farming is the biggest cause of greenhouse gases in the world. By far. If I can just remember all of this, and that there are things that are more important that what I feel like, I think I can really do this not eating meat thing. I really really want to.
And now, some words from our author:
"A British reader who cares about the issues raised in this book should not find any peace in being British." (Damn...)
"For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature as an obstacle to be overcome."
"I felt shame for living in a nation of unprecedented prosperity- a nation that spends a smaller percentage of income on food than any other civilisation has in human history- but in the name of affordability treats the animals it eats with cruelty so extreme that it would be illegal if inflicted on a dog."
"Two friends are ordering lunch. One says 'I'm in the mood for a burger' and orders it. The other says 'I'm in the mood for a burger,' but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?"
"From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of 'broilers' [chickens we eat] increased by 65%, while their time-to-market dropped 60% and their feed requirements dropped 57%. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flintstones vitamins" (This is SO disturbing! Also, completely random aside, I'm really sad that we never had Flintstones vitamins in England! They would have been so cool...)
"It's possible that you can't afford to care, but it's certain that you can't afford not to care."
"Whether we're talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that's not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That's the question."