Friday I read the strangest, most infuriating book review (on the front page of the New York Times Arts Section) I have ever seen. Minutes later, while I was still shaking my head, Larry called to rant about the "smug" review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, a book we had both recently read. "What's wrong with that reviewer?" he yelled in my ear. "Doesn't she care about fecal soup?!" See for yourself, read the concluding paragraph of Michiko Kakutani's review and tell me if it isn't completely insane:
It's arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.
Since Kakutani believes that caring is a zero-sum game, and that most of us are too pea -brained to care about more than one thing at a time, she felt it was important to put Foer in his place for raising a voice against factory farming -- an industry that, let's face it, is merely really, really, really horrible.
Since reading her review, we've found it difficult to remember why we ever cared about what kind of car we drive, or whether to pay or shoplift, or who to punch and when. She's right: in the bright light of malaria, everything else is invisible. So no more money to the NRDC, no more hand wringing about health care, and no more helping old ladies across the street. Screw you, injured person lying against the curb, there are hungry kids somewhere else! Better still, here's a kick!
One of the many problems with Kakutani's lame and flamboyantly irrational review is that it suggests her own irrelevancy. If one shouldn't spend time and energy worrying about 50 billion factory-farmed animals (and the attendant environmental and human health effects, which comprise the other half of Foer's book, and are curiously ignored in the review), then one most definitely shouldn't spend time reviewing books. How many kids did Kakutani's recent columns of text on Sarah Palin--"...she does a lively job of conveying the frontier feel of the 49th state..." -- save?
Except that we need book reviewers, not in spite of the good they might be doing in the world, but -- in the case of good reviewers -- because of the good they are doing. The function of a reviewer is not to impress her personality at any expense, but to connect readers to books, ideally to those they wouldn't likely find (or want to find) on their own.
We found Foer's book that way. We didn't know Foer, and Eating Animals hadn't crossed our radar yet. Someone said, "Check this out. You're gonna care about this." That was the understatement of the century. What should we care about more than what we are putting into our bodies and feeding our children every day, three times a day? Foer's book raises critical ethical questions we all need to face. I agree with Foer -- who doesn't? -- we shouldn't raise hens in cramped and stacked cages, or pregnant hogs in crates too small to allow for movement. We shouldn't modify animals' bodies in ways that destine them for suffering and steady diets of drugs. We shouldn't remove their appendages without anesthetic. We shouldn't pretend they aren't alive and we shouldn't be eating animals riddled with sickness and disease. We shouldn't be polluting the planet to satisfy our appetites.
Such care is not, as Kakutani implies, excessive. It is basic human decency. And decency never takes away from humans -- not even when it's directed toward animals. It's frankly hard to imagine the person who would argue that it's no big deal to systematically harm animals, while at the same time be a champion of human causes.
What a shame this book didn't have a more thoughtful review.