I like to fancy myself one of those easygoing vegetarians. I truly understand that not everyone should be a vegetarian. I’ve never pressured anyone to abstain from meat. I’m not even very strict with myself. I will pretend I didn’t hear that the soup was made with chicken stock, and I don’t care if meat has been on my plate. I just don’t want to literally chomp my teeth through the stuff, okay? That’s where I draw the line. But here’s a secret: while I’m playing it cool about picking pepperoni off my pizza, deep down inside, some voice inside me is saying, I am right vegetarianism is right everyone should be a vegetarian. That is why I love these seven books.
They confirm what I believe. They confirm the decision I have made.
These books will do one of the following for you: tell you “you’re the best, you’re right, bravo”; challenge your diet; or make you roll your eyes at every last point the authors make. And those are three excellent options.
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
When my book club read The Jungle a few months ago, membership dropped drastically. People said they couldn’t handle reading about the nastiness of the meat industry, even though the meat industry in question existed more than 100 years ago. And while there are some passages that might make your guts churn, the book isn’t really about the meat industry; it’s about the evils of capitalism. Actually, it’s basically just a huge advertisement for socialism. I was most disturbed when, in an ironic twist, (spoiler alert!) young Stanislovas Lukoszaite is eaten by rats. Slaughtered cows, what?
Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
When you flip through Eating Animals, written by the author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, you can almost see Jonathan Safran Foer’s tears dried on the pages. This is an emotional account of Safran Foer’s journey away from meat-eating, a decision that was spurred by becoming a husband and father. There are plenty of graphic descriptions and harrowing facts about factory farming, assembly-line slaughter, and high-tech fishing methods, but what’s more intense is Safran Foer’s empathy for animal suffering. It’s like the book is bleeding. Faint-hearted readers will probably cry, and strong-willed meat eaters will probably call Safran Foer a wuss. I especially appreciate Safran Foer’s description of his struggle to reconcile vegetarianism with his Jewish family’s food traditions, from Thanksgiving turkey to brisket. Unless you were raised by hippies (and maybe you were), you probably have your own set of food traditions, and you’d have to fight to forgo meat at family functions. When your doting grandma says, “of course you can eat lamb—it’s not meat, it’s lamb!” it’s hard to turn her down.
The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II
In contrast to Eating Animals, there’s not a lot of emotion of The China Study, just a lot of facts about nutrition and the sickening, often scary effects of eating animal products of any kind. It goes a little something like this: “Rats in group A were fed milk, and rats in group B were not. All of the rats in group A got cancer and none of the rats in group B suffered any negative effects whatsoever.” “Rats in group A were fed liver, and rats in group B were not. All of the rats in group A got cancer and none of the rats in group B suffered any negative effects whatsoever.” Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you finally get halfway through a test study and want to throw the book on your comforter and say, “Let me GUESS how this one’s gonna end,” and “Are you KIDDING ME? Not AGAIN!” But the authors aren’t trying to tug at your heart strings; they are presenting the facts they have. And if they’re right, I’m hanging with the B rats.
Diet For A Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe
When my mom became a vegetarian in the early 90s, she read Diet For A Small Planet. I remember thinking, “wah wah wah my mom is such a boring loser moron head.” I pitied her for picking up a book with the words “diet” and “small planet” on it—and a pile of grain, to top it all off. This was around the time that I hid all the “Now Serving Veggie Burgers!” pamphlets from our favorite diner, because I didn’t want that nasty crap on my table. But Mom was onto something. Although it was written in 1991, Lappe’s book is forward thinking about the social and personal importance of eating simply, healthfully, and meatlessly. I lost my paper copy years ago when it fell to pieces, and I’m bummed, because there was a killer recipe for Mulligatawny stew inside. (Oh, look! I found it. I love the internet.) And come to think of it, the idea of eating for a small planet is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? God I was such a loser moron head when I was a kid.
Dominion, by Matthew Scully
Spoiler Alert: This review has a surprise ending!
Dominion argues that when God gave man dominion over the animals, he meant that we should protect them, not line them up, gut them, and serve them on bread. This line of reasoning has been a great comeback for me when Bible-thumpers give me flack for not eating meat. It’s a powerful book, and a break from the factory farming books that seem to be in abundance recently. Scully goes a few steps further than farms, introducing the annual convention of Safari Club International, where rich people pay $20,000 to hunt elephants abroad or in “safari ranches,” and animals are kept in pens. He also pulls back the curtain on the International Whaling Commission conference—you will learn more about whaling since the last time you read Moby Dick. (But this time it’s for real.)
Ready for the punch line? Matthew Scully was Sarah Palin’s speech writer. Sometimes fact is better than fiction!
When Elephants Weep, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
I don’t think anyone will be shocked to read in When Elephants Weep that elephants weep, but it’s a nice reminder in case you’ve forgotten. I am a ginormous sucker for those videos where lions are reunited with their caregivers to the tune of Aerosmith and photos of chimpanzees mourning the loss of loved ones, so it was masochistic of me to read this. If you pick up this book, I promise you dancing squirrels, bashful gorillas, and spiteful killer whales. And Jane Goodall herself, the freaking MAN when it comes to animal behavior, called this book “marvelous.” What else do you want to know? One note: I wouldn’t suggest reading Elephants if you are only interested in being informed about vegetarianism or the meat industry. Read it when you feel like crawling into a tiny ball in the corner of your bathroom and sobbing into the bath mat. When I did it, my cat came and licked away my tears. AND BACK TO THE SOBBING.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
When you read Charlotte’s Web for the first time as a young child, you realize that animals are compelling characters and spirits with feelings and hopes and dreams. It’s kind of like When Elephants Weep, Jr. But when you read it as an adult, you realize that while Charlotte might have saved that lucky son-of-a-gun Wilbur, she can’t save them all—she is only one tiny (albeit sassy) spider. The first time I read it, I actually wanted to be Charlotte, so I could protect animals instead of consume. I’m not trying to make you think I’m enlightened or anything—as a kid, I also wanted to be a stop light. (And though I am a vegetarian, I will kill a spider so fast it will make your head spin.)
So what books am I missing? And what books should I read that present the other side?