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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Chew on this: J. S. Foer discusses issues behind “Eating Animals”

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Jonathan Safran Foer stands at a grand wooden podium overlooking dozens of pews packed with eagerly awaiting fans. An air of humble intellect gives him an almost rabbinical presence, standing at the front and center of attention at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. A respectful silence hangs in the air but is immediately broken as he starts the night off with lighthearted reassurance: “Last time I was standing in a place like this, it was my Bar Mitvzah.”

Foer is one of the premier novelists of our generation. His first two novels, “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” have received tremendous critical acclaim; the first spawned a movie of the same name back in 2005. Foer is known for his artful prose packed with brilliant imagery, emotional plotlines, and wholesome humor—the humor often serving as a necessary counterpart to very intense subject matter (the Holocaust and 9/11, to name a couple). It comes as no surprise that his first published work of non-fiction would tackle some hard-hitting topics as well—this time the issue of “Eating Animals,” which incidentally is the title of his new book.

Foer spent a big part of his life in a moralistic tug-of-war between bouts of vegetarianism and eating meat with hefty servings of guilt on the side. Ever since his childhood babysitter posed the idea that his food came from a living, breathing, feeling creature, life as an omnivore became forever complicated.

At the Brookline book reading Wednesday night, Foer selected a passage that illustrated his relationship with his grandmother and food. Growing up, he and his brothers “believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God;” often considering her the best chef in the world, despite the fact that her culinary expertise never surpassed using two ingredients in any recipe. Foer’s grandmother survived through war times and often had to stoop to drastic measures in order to keep starvation, and the Germans, at bay.

At one point her withered, gauntly body earned the sympathy of one Russian who in turn offered her a free helping of meat. Grandmother refused, simply because the meat offered was pork—something she would not allow herself to eat even when desperately hungry, lest break her devout Kosher lifestyle. To this, Foer was profoundly confused and even angry. Grandmother’s response? “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

“Eating Animals,” in typical Foer fashion, doesn’t have a conventional linear story line—rather, it is a congregation of various ideas, arguments, questions and anecdotes, working together to reach an ultimate conclusion: that eating meat is indeed harmful, and in more ways than one. Unlike Foer’s previous works of fiction, “Eating Animals” provides a brilliantly argued factual platform to discuss with his readers.

The second part of Wednesday night’s session was an informed discussion between Foer and the audience about the most salient issues in the book, as well as personal details from his life, like the reason he decided to raise his young son as a vegetarian.

In this way, the open discussion was unlike his previous book readings that often posed questions about style and craft. (As Foer pointed out: “That’s what’s great about novels—They’re useless!”) This book tour is less literary and more focused on pressing matters involving health, politics, culture, morality and traditional values.

Foer is not trying to convert anyone to vegetarianism with his new book. Rather, he is trying to bring to light an issue that should already be prominent in people’s minds. As Foer said, this is not just an issue between political parties or between East coast and West coast or between new and old generations. This is a fundamentally human issue, with a serious moral question at its very core.

Foer wants his readers to know that it’s fine to be vegetarian, just as it’s fine to eat the right kind of meat with the necessary justification. The only thing he says is not fine, is remaining indifferent.