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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Review: Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)

What seems to have happened is that after his son was born, the author decided to discover the real truth about animal husbandry and the production of meat. It took him three years. This book is the result.

It's an ambitious and fascinating book. Safran Foer is a novelist who has gone the other way and plunged, headlong, into non-fiction. It's creative non-fiction, which is a (mainly) American mode of writing with strong historical precedents but it's still exceptional enough that, for example, if you go into a bookshop looking for the 'creative non-fiction' section you'll likely find yourself directed to the 'how to write' books. The alternate descriptor, 'literary journalism', will lead you to the literary criticism shelf.

Safran Foer had dabbled in vegetarianism for years before the birth of his son but it was only after discovering the cruelties of industrial farming practices that he finally drew a line in the sand and said "Never more".

Grounding the sections that describe how these farms - which are a 20th century innovation and, thus, an historical anomaly - operate, the author talks mainly about his family. Eating is a communal activity after all. Stories about his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, underpin and finally punctuate the narrative with a force so compelling that the reader may decide to do his or her own research on this massively underreported and extremely newsworthy topic.

But the companies that produce meat - they are mainly companies nowadays, at least in the United States - are highly secretive. And they are so dominant that small-holders have been pushed out of business or coopted into the system. Nevertheless, Safran Foer says that their days are numbered. These inhumane practices are so aberrant and repulsive, he writes, that as knowledge about them grows the only possible result is a consumer backlash.

We'll see. Certainly, this book will make a few people in the industry shake their heads.

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