Going vegetarian was not an overnight change for me. After reading up on factory farming my freshman year of college, I cut out meat. That lasted about a month. I’d repeat this frustrating stop-and-start cycle—how could I know what I know and still go back to eating meat?—a few times over the next year, until I came across Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, published in 2009. The book helped me work through the complicated decision and solidify my stance in a way that stuck. Since then, I’ve been recommending it as a necessary step for veg-curious people who want to figure out where they stand and why.
If you’re looking to read a straightforward, unequivocal case against carnivorism, Eating Animals is not it. “An earnest if clumsy chronicle of the author’s own evolving thinking about animals and vegetarianism, this uneven volume meanders all over the place, mixing reportage and research with stream-of-consciousness musings and asides,” Michiko Kakutani writes in her New York Times review of the bestseller. Her words aren’t exactly complimentary, but they actually capture the brilliance of Eating Animals perfectly. It is earnest, clumsy, evolving, uneven, and meandering: An accurate representation of what the process of seriously reconsidering eating meat looks like.
A mix of lyrical memoir and rigorous science reporting, Eating Animals wanders through the quagmire of ethical, political, economic, environmental, cultural, health, and philosophical considerations around eating factory-farmed meat. Like any serious treatment of the issue, the book is, in part, a very well-reported primer on how the colossal (and often opaque) system that produces the vast majority of our meat and animal products actually works. Foer reports the facts on factory farming, including how these animals live and the science on their sentience—the hardest parts to read, unsurprisingly—as well as how the industry burdens the planet (e.g. deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution).
Eating Animals also provides an incredibly multifaceted view of the factory farming industry by speaking to (and including essays from) various stakeholders. We get the perspectives of those getting rich off the system (a factory farm executive) and those who endanger their physical and mental health making it run (a slaughterhouse worker). We also hear from those trying to reform the system from the inside (a theology professor/vegan activist working on plans for a model slaughterhouse), those trying to work outside it (a humane turkey farmer), and those trying to tear it down (a PETA activist).
So what makes Eating Animals such a “clumsy” read? Like other books on the topic, it presents a pretty damning factual case against factory farming. Unlike other books, Foer never pretends that the issue is black-and-white, or that opting out of this system is an easy call. Too often, cases for vegetarianism (or veganism) resort to a sort of fervent proselytizing that oversimplifies what is a complex, difficult issue—and may make undecided readers feel defensive, judged, or rushed to make up their minds. Wisely, Foer never indicts the meat eaters themselves: “It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s environmentally destructive and what’s sustainable.” More to the point, Eating Animals is honest about the fact that deciding to make a major dietary/lifestyle change—one that goes against the way most of us were brought up—is extraordinarily messy business. “Food is never simply a calculation about which diet uses the least water or causes the least suffering,” Foer writes. “[F]ood is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity.”