The College of Charleston picks a book each year for our College Reads program. It's a book that everybody on campus is encouraged to read so that we can have all kinds of chewy conversations throughout the academic year. Our 2012-2013 book is Eating Animals, a nonfiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer.
It's a book about factory farms and other forms of meat production--about how they're destroying the environment, they're cruel, and they don't actually do anything good for the world. They make world hunger worse. They compromise--even threaten--our human decency.
Shortly after the book was announced as our College Reads selection, I was having breakfast with some colleagues. (For what it's worth, I was eating a muffin--no meat!) I made mention of the book. "I'm going to read it," I said, "but I already have plenty of stuff that I feel guilty about. And I've already gone through my vegetarian years. I'm going to read it, but I'm going to keep some distance between myself and Foer's claims."
"That's what I said going into it," one of my colleagues replied--a geologist, so not a big-time feminist scholar or anything. "Particularly with the fish section. I said, 'I'm not going to stop eating fish!' Now I don't eat fish anymore."
This comment filled me with dread, but despite that, I read the book. And here's what I have to say about it: it has added to the level of guilt I now feel on a daily basis. I haven't yet changed my diet, but every bite of meat I eat, I think about motherfricking Jonathan Safran Foer and the compelling points he made.
For instance, he's basically convinced me to stop eating chicken. 99.9 of chickens are from factory farms, and these chickens--whether they're "cage free" or not--are living inside a space that's a bit smaller than the double-page spread of a typical paperback book. Their beaks are cut off, without anesthesia, and they're killed in ways that are careless at best, incredibly cruel at worst. This last fact, as it turns out, is true of virtually all meat animals these days. He does quite a bit with the slaughterhouses and really makes you start thinking about how bad cruelty is not only for the animals but for the folks who do it for a living. How corrupting it is to their humanity.
Then the chicken corpses are cooled in a communal tank of water called "fecal soup." These days 11% of the weight of the chicken you buy from the store is the fecal and germ-infested water it soaked in. Our chicken is filled with E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter. Yum!
He knows his reader. He knows that he's writing for a thoughtful, liberal audience, so he continually lobs things like this at you:
We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals? (252)He wants his readers to become vegetarians, and he makes many, many good arguments to convince us to do so. You want to say, "Yes, yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, but I've already got too many political commitments! I don't have room for one more!" And he responds with comments like the quote above. You think, "But I love bacon so much!" and Foer says, "Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless--it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another" (267).
Then you think, "Well, crap."
Here's what else I'll say: I figured this book would be a guilt-tripping nightmare (true!) that I had to force myself to read (not true!). The pleasant surprise is that the book is a page turner. Foer is a strong enough writer that he's able to make the whole book really fascinating and fast paced, even as he's encouraging your feelings of despair. He also provides some reassuring case studies of individuals doing ethical family farming, so it's not all nausea-inducing.