Juxtapositions: Wooden Books and Eating Animals

In my aleatory wanderings around the internet, I’m always surprised at how often random and wonderful points of connection turn up between completely unrelated topics I’m poking at. I love those little juxtapositions, and the associations they set up. So I’ve decided to give in to the impulse to celebrate them and give them their own category on Like Fire.

Wooden booksFirst of all, I think it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything as beautiful as these wooden books. They were assembled in the late 18th century by one Carl Schildbach as a reference library, documenting the various trees and shrubs growing on the German estate he managed. The outer casing of each was made from wood of the plant in question and, according to Arthur MacGregor’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Century,

the interior was reserved for an exposition of the whole natural history of the plant… a complete seedling is included to one side, with its roots, seminal capsule and first pair of leaves.  In the centre of the box the tip of a branch displays buds and leaves in various stages of development…blossoms are shown varying from full blooms to faded flowers, while fruits are similarly represented at every stage in their development… Examples of associated parasites and lichens are included…

I especially like the lichen details on the spines.

Cornell.cockatoo-corks Those, in turn, brought to mind Joseph Cornell and his fantastic boxes. I don’t imagine Cornell would have ever encountered Schildbach’s wooden books from his quiet frame house in Queens, but the impulse to put together cabinets of wonders must be as deeply ingrained in our tool-using human selves as the need to categorize. Hence the wave of love for scrapbooking–which, while it’s easy to make fun of in light of the big-box industry that’s sprung up around it, is still a way of convincing people they can make things, and I’m all for that. As it turns out, there’s even a Cornell box book-and-kit set. And again, why not? It looks like it’s aimed mainly at kids, but it still looks like fun. And it’s blurbed by none other than Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer Who, coincidentally, is also on my mind today. His newly published Eating Animals has well and truly gotten my attention. The extremely loud and incredibly illuminated Huffington Post has run a series of essays and videos about it over the past week, with bloggers ranging from Deepak Chopra to Natalie Portman. The Vroman’s Bookstore blog is taking a thoughtful tack, starting out with a couple of videos and inviting readers to contribute. And if you haven’t read Safran Foer’s Wall Street Journal article, Let Them Eat Dog, you should—this is what a supplemental piece ought to read like.

The book examines his choice to become a vegetarian from a number of angles—ethical, factual, biographical—and while it’s by all accounts compassionate, Eating Animals hits where it’s supposed to: your gut, your conscience. He looks at factory farming and its environmental impact, but also at the myths we build in order to justify having created such an industry in the first place. From the WSJ article:

Dogs are wonderful, and in many ways unique. But they are remarkably unremarkable in their intellectual and experiential capacities. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and feeling, by any sensible definition of the words. They can’t hop into the back of a Volvo, but they can fetch, run and play, be mischievous and reciprocate affection. So why don’t they get to curl up by the fire? Why can’t they at least be spared being tossed on the fire? Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us.
The French, who love their dogs, sometimes eat their horses.

The Spanish, who love their horses, sometimes eat their cows.

The Indians, who love their cows, sometimes eat their dogs.

While written in a much different context, George Orwell’s words (from Animal Farm) apply here: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

As a soft-hearted animal lover and guilty carnivore, I’m pretty sure I have every right to be afraid of this book. Most of the choices I make in life are reasonably weighed out in units of fact, desire, and principle; eating bacon is not one of those. All sorts of freshly-minted books get all sorts of publicity, and that’s as it should be, but this is one that I think probably should be in people’s faces. It probably should be in mine, anyway. And at the rate I’m going, it probably will be.

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8 Comments to Juxtapositions: Wooden Books and Eating Animals

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    November 5, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    There’s an agenda to be sure in this book. That’s Foer’s right, maybe even his obligation as he sees it. But it doesn’t oblige me to attend his compunctions. Everything about what we eat and don’t eat can be parsed six ways from hell and back. Logic doesn’t enter.
    I’ve no doubt there’s hair-raising material in the book (I’ve read excerpts) but there are equally hair-raising truths to be found in the stories of people who labor in sweatshops, who are killed or kidnapped crossing the border, who soldier in Iraq to “defend” the U.S. and “defeat” terrorism, who do piece work at home, who can’t get medical treatment because they’re no insured, ad nauseum infinitum.
    I’m a soft-hearted animal lover who has no guilt about eating meat, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, broccoli (you know, some folk say vegetables can feel pain); I have no intention of eating my cat, nor my neighbor’s dog, nor my co-worker’s horse. AND, I don’t see the contradiction that is apparent to some. My culture, as of today, doesn’t typically eat these critters. Come the apopacalypse, I expect will be eating anything we can get our hands on including each other (a la Cormac McCarthy).
    I recommend other soft-hearted folk of all persuasions read Michel Faber’s Under the Skin if you want to gorge on guilt. Although that riveting tome has one major problem. You’ll figure it out.

  2. November 6, 2009 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I get the feeling the book isn’t so much a screed aimed at converting the unrepentant as speaking to those of us teetering on the edge with some discomfort. And that would definitely be me.

  3. November 6, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Well, he’s getting plenty of PR for this book, and I get the impression that’s important to him. Steve wrote, indirectly, about it on his blog the other day while discussing the latest New Yorker (and isn’t that a gorgeous cover illustration?). Here’s just an excerpt:

    The other author is Jonathan Safran Foer, whose latest book Eating Animals is reviewed at length in a smart, argumentative piece by Elizabeth Kolbert. Foer’s book is also damn near unbearable, but not, as in Rand’s case, because it’s poorly written – in fact, it – and Foer in general – would be far less irritating if it were possible to simply dismiss it as bad writing. No, Foer can definitely craft sound prose – but what he’s done with that ability since he first easily, effortlessly gimmicked his way into public view with Everything Is Illuminated has been nothing but frustrating, and this book is no exception. In it, he hyperventilates about how the prospect of fatherhood forced him to re-evaluate his eating habits … for every page of the book, he bounces between sounding like he’s the first person ever to learn that meat consumption is wasteful and cruel and the first person ever to become a father. The end result is wearyingly narcissistic, despite the large amount of gruesomely fascinating data lucidly presented.

  4. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    November 6, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    The LA Times’ book blog (Jacket Copy) features an interview with Foer today: You Gonna Eat That?

  5. November 7, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    JSF is reading in Brookline (for Indie Brookline Booksmith) at Congregation Kehillath Israel this Wednesday.

  6. November 8, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Foer’s latest is definitely on my TBR list, but I don’t expect it to change my mind about bacon. I think it’s likely to strengthen my resolve to avoid factory-farmed food whenever I can and that’s all to the good.
    Also, I love those wooden books. Just marvelous.

  7. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    November 8, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I have to say I have been adhering to a predominantly lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for many years now, both for health and ethical reasons. In the past I was much more passionate about the whole thing, being vegan and reading everything written on the topic. With time I found that tolerance and the health angle makes more converts that shock tactics and propaganda. Much as I have been aware of this book, I will probably not read it in the end. All that said, I found the WSJ article abhorrent. That paper should busy itself with what it was supposed to discuss – business, and objectively, which lately has not been its forte. Until that time, I am sticking with Financial Times.

  8. November 15, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m blown away by those wooden book boxes.

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