Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included a personal essay from novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, “Against Meat,” which recounts his struggles with whether or not to eat (or teach his child to eat) other creatures. As I started reading, I wondered what a wunderkind novelist might really add to the “Meat Is Murder” playlist.
The essay is well-written, and chronicles his family’s relationship to food in ways that many readers will recognize. Foer also uses the kinds of facts and figures that made a recent piece on hamburgers the most emailed Times story in the last 30 days.
Yet Foer’s argument seems to be moral rather than rational; it derives power from his personal struggle with his conscience. The story just happens to be newsy and timely because his conscience carries economic and political baggage.
Moral narratives have a checkered history in journalism. In light of persuasive editorials and essays that have favored injustices like segregation and eugenics, publishing stories that make moral appeals can be a tricky business.
But Foer electrifies a competent piece with a bravura finale that sneaks up on some very big questions while also providing a structural template for any aspiring essayist. He backs out of trying to convert others and instead narrates his own epiphany.
So, according to Foer, why not eat meat? Because in his heart, he believes it is wrong. That’s the summary, but if you want to see how an extended analogy can bring home a story like nobody’s business, read his piece through to the very end.