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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010 01:02 am

Eating Animals goes viral at Illinois College

Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals went viral on the Illinois College campus early in 2010. At least eight faculty members read it, and many others read about it. A Spanish professor paused to cry midway through the book. My wife, a professor of American literature then teaching on a Fulbright in Japan, dramatically reduced her meat consumption and purchased us a subscription to Vegetarian Times. A candidate for our writer-in-residence position had read the book, and it became a place of common ground during a dinner conversation.

The book’s impact on my life was fairly dramatic. Late one night in March, I was lying in bed after a long day of teaching, grading and meetings and following my standard practice of reading every day no matter what. That night, I had chosen Eating Animals because a colleague had asked for my opinion about it. After finishing only two chapters, I closed the book and petted Hector, our black-and-white calico cat. “This book is disturbing,” I told him. “I am not eating meat tomorrow.”

A few weeks into my meat moratorium, while I was still adjusting to the harsh stress of such an abrupt change in diet and calorie intake, our first issue of Vegetarian Times arrived in the mail. It contained a Q-and-A interview with Foer on the last page. “Did you know that the swine flu [a fear on our campus] came from factory farms in North Carolina?” I asked the students in my nonfiction workshop. “I’m going to keep thinking about this for a while, and until I decide on the right action, I am not eating meat.” They seemed to think I was crazy.

Now, I cannot claim my action was solely the result of the book’s power. That semester, I was teaching two nonfiction courses, and Foer’s book is interesting as a hybrid that blends immersion reporting, argumentative writing or advocacy prose, and narrative memoir. Structural and stylistic experimentation permeate the book. At one point, Foer includes a rectangle as a visual representation of the “67 square inches of space” that egg-layers now spend their life in; in another place, he devotes every character on five pages to illustrate this fact: “On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime.” It was, in short, a book writing students needed to know about, but also one that allowed me to teach some truths about literature and life. I used it as a teaching tool.

But I also seized the moral dilemma posed by the book as an opportunity to get serious about my physical health. My childhood and young adult lifestyle of intense athletic activity had, over a period of 15 years, slowly but steadily transformed into a sedentary lifestyle. Desk chairs and computer terminals were my setting for most of my waking hours, and the results were measurable. My waistline was 36 inches. According to test results, my blood contained too much bad cholesterol and not enough good cholesterol. My body-mass index tipped me just over the line into the obese category. (Yes, this number is a crude and contested measure, but I know that 220 pounds is not a healthy weight for me.) I can pinpoint the year in which I was in my peak physical condition from a combination of running, weight-lifting, rowing and volleyball. In March 2010, I weighed 35 pounds more than my weight then.

An awareness — a fear? — of mortality, I suspect, was a contributing motivation. During the past seven years, my father died suddenly of a heart attack, Beth’s mother died of medical issues related to smoking, her father died suddenly of a heart attack, and my mother survived a heart attack that occurred while she was driving from one work site to another. My father was 61, Beth’s mother was 61, her father was 67, and my mother was 63. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy in the United States is 77.7 years. I am 42 now, and our families are clearly not beating the odds. But I write this sentence 20 weeks after reading Foer’s book as a person who is still not eating meat, and who is 19 pounds lighter.

Foer presents his conclusions in a measured, balanced way, and this disciplined expression (dare I say the word sanity?) is rare enough that it lends even more force to his argument. He writes, “For me to conclude firmly that I will not eat animals does not mean I oppose, or even have mixed feelings about, eating animals in general . . . . To decide for oneself and one’s family is not to decide for the nation or the world.” Later, he adds, “What we do know, though, is that if you eat meat today, your typical choice is between animals raised with either more (chicken, turkey, fish, and pork) or less (beef) cruelty.” I cannot see a fundamental refutation of his ultimate conclusion: eating meat in the United States at this time essentially supports the current factory-farm system.

And because of the knowledge he shared with me (and you) in this book, I am no longer willing to offer that support.

Nick Capo is associate professor of English at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
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