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ImageI’ve studied literature and writing for over eight years and if I had to recommend one book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals would be it.

That’s a huge call, especially seeing as I generally can’t even settle on a top ten. My God, what is this master work? I hear you ask. Well, JSF spent several years researching arguments for and against vegetarianism and then wrote about them in a way that sent me into a fit of nostalgic blubbing for Grandma’s cooking by page 10.

I admit that having having The Great Man Himself spend several hundred pages congratulating me on my (clearly) superior and intelligent choice to abstain from meat had ginormous appeal. In fact, I couldn’t have been more tickled if Alexander Skarsgard spent several hours telling me how gorgeous I am (at least I don’t think so… I’m willing to test my hypothesis).

JSF’s research question is: should I bring my son up as a vegetarian. To answer, he hires two research assistants and spends three years gathering and collating data. Although (shock, horror) the book clearly comes down on the side of vegetarianism, and does so almost from the start, JSF has not always been vego himself and understands how difficult it can be to give up the food we love. He offers a reasonable counter argument and doesn’t let the reader get away with simply blaming factory farmers for problems with and caused by the meat industry. He admits that if we continue to consume meat at our current rate, family farms can’t produce enough to satisfy us, putting the onus back on the reader and asking not that we necessarily become vegan or vegetarian, but that we become active, informed consumers.

His book offers a fair chunk of the information needed to make those responsible choices, and it’s this wealth of research that I found most impressive. There are first person accounts from members of PETA and other animal right activists, family farmers and factory farmers – there’s even a story from a vegetarian rancher. JSF visits various farms and ranches (both factory and family) and slaughterhouses and he gets into the nitty gritty of how the meat industry in its current form affects both the environment and our health.

When I became a vegetarian, my motives weren’t exactly pure. I loved meat, really, REALLY loved it. But then I met my Mister (who doesn’t eat meat) and I quickly realised that I loved him even more than a schnitty soaked in gravy, which is to say a whole lot. He never asked me to go vego, or even suggested it, he just wouldn’t buy or cook meat for me. I wasn’t bothered by this – the man roasts a mean vegetable – but for a while I kept eating meat when he wasn’t around. Then, after a few months, I didn’t. The decision was strategic and completely ego centric: The animals live, I lose weight (let’s face it, meat is full of fat) and the Mister and I live hippie ever after. Everybody wins.

In one regard, Eating Animals was a giant pat on the back, on the other it showed me how, even as a vegetarian, I was relatively ignorant of what my carrot munching is actually protesting against. I had a vague idea about most topics JSF covers, but I had no concept of the specifics. I knew some diseases came from animals, but I didn’t realise how many, or how many were spread as a result of the ill-treatment of animals and the mismanagement of their waste. I didn’t know what percentage of the world’s crops went to feeding genetically engineered animals when so many people are starving, and how many of those animals end up wasted in super-sized meals no one could possibly finish. I didn’t realise the extent of genetic engineering or just how unsanitary some slaughter processes are, particularly regarding poultry. I didn’t realise a thousand things.

I also hadn’t really thought about the stories behind our food and why we eat certain dishes at certain times and what it means to give up those social rituals and establish new ones. The book isn’t just about eating animals, but also that we are eating animals and giving up meat goes against something our species has always done.

The book gives a lot of detail about our unnecessarily cruel treatment of animals, but it’s essentially selfish in its argument: by mistreating animals, we’re mistreating ourselves, lowering our quality of life and screwing things up royally for the next generation. Like JSF, I’d never tell someone they should go vego and I’d never give them a hard time about eating meat, but I would ask that they at least consider the debate surrounding our consumption of animals.

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