In his new book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer takes a piercing look at his personal eating choices as well as, more broadly, those of the food industry. He seeks and reveals discomforting truths – not only to startle himself into a better consciousness but also so he can make informed decisions on behalf of his small children. Here, he discusses the four books that have helped shape his thoughts about what it means to be a father. – Nell Casey
Patrimony: A True Story by Philip Roth
I can’t think of a more honest or unflinching account of fatherhood. This is the story of Roth taking care of his father, who is dying of brain cancer. There is a scene in the beginning – Roth’s sick, aged father wipes his feces all over the bathroom. It’s very easy to talk about feeling awe or great affection or worry about the family but I think it’s very hard, and also more honest, to talk about the shit and blood and physicality of it. That was one of the things that surprised me about parenting, actually. Babies are not intellectual human beings – in the beginning, they are not even capable of smiling, the most simple expression of human life – and yet they’re demanding of a physical relationship. One of the funny – or not so funny – tricks of life: As you get older, relationships come back to that physicality. You might find yourself wearing a diaper again and needing someone to bathe and feed you. Can anyone hold a baby without imagining oneself as an old person or the baby as an old person?
Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier
This book is like the continuation of Patrimony in a sense, because it begins after the end. Weiseltier immerses himself in the Jewish ritual of saying Kaddish after his father dies – this act of committing himself does not mean he can make sense of death but he engages with it. Religious or not, as a parent, you are somebody who makes rituals. Whether it is a particular succession of books at bedtime or waffles on Thursday mornings – they’re all practices that you repeat and they take on a special meaning. Ritual gives kids and adults a sense of structure where structure is naturally lacking. It’s the counting on it that matters.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
I was so moved by this novel, particularly by the way the father and daughter are bound together through shame. The father’s shame comes from the fact that he won’t admit to an affair he had and the shame of his daughter is for her country, about apartheid in South Africa. Shame can be a good thing though – it can prompt exploration. It was actually the inspiration for me to write my new book, Eating Animals . There is the shame of a kid asking you a question and not being able to answer it, of almost entirely forgetting your responsibility. Why do we eat animals? Children’s questions highlight our inconsistencies and paradoxes, but they also inspire us to consider the answers.
Life? Or Theatre? By Charlotte Salomon
I was in Amsterdam and I just stumbled into the Jewish museum. Salomon’s work – the paintings and text that make up this book – was on display there. There was something about the line of suicides in her family – her grandmother, aunt and mother all took their own lives – and the idea of inescapable fate that drew me in. Since I’ve become a father I’ve become very aware of things that are handed down on purpose and by accident. And I’m interested in what can be resisted. I have a bad habit, for example, of being anti-confrontational. I know why I have it – we can usually trace these things to historical and familial trauma. Part of being a parent is the opportunity to correct these things. I admire Salomon for resisting her fate so forcefully through her art. Sorrowfully, the Nazis captured her not long after she made these paintings and she was killed at Auschwitz. The conflict is: How can art redeem or correct? Sometimes it can’t. And yet we keep doing it.