Jonathan Safran Foer talks about 'Eating Animals'

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I let Jonathan Safran Foer choose the restaurant where we would meet. The acclaimed 31-year-old novelist ("Everything Is Illuminated," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") has spent the past three years tackling the moral and ecological implications of eating meat, and the resulting nonfiction book, "Eating Animals" (Little, Brown, $25.99) takes a pretty dim view of its subject. I didn't want to start the interview off on the wrong foot by suggesting a place that Foer objected to.

I needn't have worried. His research - which entailed exhaustive documentary research, interviews and visits to farms both large and small - has convinced him to refrain from eating meat, but he is resolutely nonjudgmental about other peoples' dietary choices. We met at Patisserie Colson, a cafe near his home in Brooklyn.

When did you start thinking about becoming a vegetarian?

I've always had instincts that something wasn't right, and I spent 27 years not pursuing my instincts. It's not that I was too busy or too lazy. I knew that when I did it, I would have to either change my life or confront my hypocrisy.

If you had lived at another time in history, would you have eaten meat?

In the book, I write about the first factory farm. In 1923 a poultry farmer, Celia Steele, figured out that by keeping her chickens indoors and supplementing their feed with vitamins, she could produce 10 times as many birds. Before 1923, I would have not been compelled to write this book. The book isn't about whether it's OK to kill animals. It's about factory farming.

Did being a novelist influence the way you wrote the book?

I think this story has been told in the wrong way - as philosophy, as religion, as law - and people can't help feeling defensive. I wanted to tell the story as a story. Because there's nothing objective about this issue. There's nothing objective about how you feel about your grandmother's cooking, or about feeding your kid. These things transcend reason, and any argument for not eating meat that doesn't transcend reason will never work.

You shy away from arguments of moral equivalence. I kept expecting to read about slavery, but you never bring it up.

Yes, they are both systems that abuse because they can, but the equivalency isn't direct. PETA has tried to create this Holocaust equivalence, and if you squint your eyes, you can sort of see it, but it's not a successful approach.

There are people who don't question the decision to eat meat solely because it's natural for humans to do so.

Look, I was a pretty enthusiastic meat eater. I would really like to eat barbecue, fried chicken. A vegetarian diet isn't as rich, and to pretend otherwise is untrue. But as for what is natural, that argument has three parts. One, we seem physically designed to eat meat. Two, we've been eating meat for a long time. Three, it's natural. But the best thing about people is that they are always transcending what is natural.

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