ILLUMINATE EVERYTHING: Thoughts on Veg*n Parenting from Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve worked around books for nearly half my life, and they’ve been important to me for all of it.

I still remember that trip to New Hope, PA (doesn’t that just sound like a place where magical things happen?). It was 2002 or 2003, walking through the new/used book shop on Main Street, making my way to the “Our Staff Recommends” shelves, the most sought-after part of any bookstore. This is where you exchange ideas with the living, breathing employees of a store, where a few sentences on a rectangle card could give you insight about the story and the person who read it.

And that’s when I first saw that striking cover, graphic black and white, jarring in it’s contrast, and the text in swooping handwritten cursive. This, before handwritten font became the norm (not that I’m complaining; I think a good handwritten font is one of the most intimate forms of design).

It’s easy for me to say that Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favorite authors. Usually “What/Who is your favorite?” questions conjure anxiety, followed by the complete wiping out of any thoughts or ideas on the topic, and I’m left to stare blankly and shrug in response. But with Jonathan Safran Foer, it’s easy.

I think part of why I respect him as a writer is not not only his use of metaphor, or the way he uses the actual placement of text on a page to help tell the story, but because he as a human being seems like a good person. Those are small words for a big idea. But it is evident in his writing, the subjects he writes about, and the sincerity with which he writes. I’d love if he could be my real-life friend, but I’m still pleased to call him a favorite author.

If you’re not familiar with his work, you’ve at least heard about the film currently in theaters based on Jonathan’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Last year when I heard this book would be a) turned into a movie and b) a movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (!), I was slightly heartbroken and very skeptical. (And, to be shamefully honest, I had a pang of “But I liked it first and now everyone’s going to like it, and what if they don’t get it, and I don’t want to share.”)

Except the thing with that book is that I have started and re-started to read it nearly ten times in the last six or seven years, and I can’t get through it. It feels too real, perhaps especially so for anyone who lost their father at a (relatively) young age. For the same reason, and those mentioned above, I’m not sure I can see the movie either (yet). But I am getting over the fact that “the masses” will now become familiar with Jonathan’s work.

Now, when I go to work at the bookstore and I see a sixteen year old girl with Twilight under one arm and Extremely Loud under the other, I hope that Jonathan’s book will mean something special to her. I truly believe the ideas put forth in the books that mean the most to us create our values, help us to see the world through different lenses, and can impact our lives and who we are more than we can measure. I’m happy that someone as talented and thoughtful as Jonathan Safran Foer is getting the chance to effect more people with his beautiful work.


This is how: In 2009, Jonathan wrote a nonfiction book called Eating Animals. It is, as you can imagine, about his journey to vegetarianism. What prompted him to take a look at his food choices and the environmental impact of them was for the same reason many people decide to make life improvements: he was going to have his first child.

What’s remarkable about this book is that, unlike most books on the topic, it is very narrative in style. And it also comes from the point of a view of a regular person learning about this stuff for the first time. He isn’t a vegan, he hasn’t ever been involved with an animal rights organizations and doesn’t have years of information and hard-formed opinions. He is a guy who cares about the world in which his child will grow up, and what he will use to nourish his child, and finds that modern food politics are pretty messed up.

A few times in my life I’ve been asked about how I will raise my own children. I remember meeting the conservative Christian Italian family of my boyfriend in freshman year of college, piling spaghetti with marinara sauce on my plate, and his mother slamming down the bowl of meatballs right in front of me and saying, “Well if you ever have kids, you better not make them eat this way, I don’t want my grandkids to be malnourished“. Friends and family have asked in inquisitive, non-confrontational ways if I would raise my child, a baby, on a vegan diet.

There is a part in Eating Animals addressing this topic that so perfectly sums up my own thoughts and feelings – especially feelings, food and how we raise our children are both very emotional things. While I recommend the whole book, and any of his work, this part in particular does just the thing good books are made for: they help us to understand ourselves better.

[From “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer]

“Children confront us with our paradoxes and dishonesty, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why — Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that? — and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood — which is a good shame — is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration.

And then, one day, they will choose for themselves. I don’t know what my reaction will be if they decide to eat meat. (I don’t know what my reaction will be if they decide to renounce their Judaism, root for the Red Sox or register Republican.) I’m not as worried about what they will choose as much as my ability to make them conscious of the choices before them. I won’t measure my success as a parent by whether my children share my values, but by whether they act according to their own.”

…. You can read a longer excerpt of the book, including these paragraphs in context, on the NY Times website here

2 thoughts on “ILLUMINATE EVERYTHING: Thoughts on Veg*n Parenting from Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. As a vegan parent, I appreciate the thoughtfulness here. Unfortunately, my spouse is decidedly NOT vegan (not even vegetarian), and his love for the food choices I eschew has rubbed off on our almost-5-year old. Honestly, it does make me feel sad, and I hope, in time, she will at least appreciate my reasoning for my life choices – and will also be guided by her conscience. Thanks for this post!

    • Gloria, it’s so interesting because there are so many loving families with parents that see things differently: religion, politics, etc. I think if a child can grow up in a household and see two people with opposing views get along so well, share their lives, be loving and good to one another, it gives all of us hope. And I think by setting an example to your child than you make decisions about your life based on your values — really, truly living your values, whatever they are — is one of the best lessons to be passed on. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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