Introduction Hollis Kurman to Jonathan Safran Foer


Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t shy away from tackling life’s biggest questions.  In his novels and non-fiction to date, he has covered the Holocaust, 9/11, the Middle East conflict, Jewish identity, family relationships, factory farming and, with this latest book, the climate crisis. As one reviewer from Bookforum noted when his last novel came out, ‘Foer thinks with intensity and nuance about subjects that are hard because they are big.’ But the big subjects don’t seem hard for Foer. His writing skates comfortably between past and future; global reflections and intimate relationships; and humor and tragedy – while openly sharing personal struggles with his readers along the way.

If there is a theme running through these diverse works, perhaps it is survival in the broadest and deepest sense. What makes us human – and what will it take to keep us human? As Henry David Thoreau famously put it, how can we ‘live deliberately?’ Or, as Foer’s own grandmother put it, ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.’

Jews are often taught that their sense of humor is a key part of what has helped them survive so much tragedy throughout their history. It’s as if Foer has taken this folk wisdom to heart – and with great effect, not only to add welcome comic relief to the raw intimacy and lacerating scenarios he brings to life, but also as a natural and challenging extension of his writer’s voice.

Foer has written three novels, including his blockbuster debut in 2002, Everything is Illuminated and haunting follow-up, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (both of which were made into films), and his most recent novel, Here I Am. He also wrote the non-fiction Eating Animals, a powerful memoir-manifesto on ethical eating, to which Foer’s latest book feels like a natural successor ten years down the road. His new book is called ‘We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.’ Clearly not content to rest on his laurels as both a critically and commercially successful novelist, Foer is on an urgent mission to get people – starting with himself – to change the way they eat for the sake of the planet. According to Foer and his many sources, this is the single most important contribution that every one of us can (and should) make to help reverse global warming: Eat a lot less meat, starting right now, or else.

A new U.N. report underscores both his message and its urgency, including a shift away from meat as a key recommendation in addressing the looming crisis in our food and water supply.

Yet Foer’s book is neither political nor preachy. It lays out damning facts, urgent arguments, philosophical underpinnings and potential solutions – but also the inevitable loopholes of human nature that get in the way of our saving ourselves.

We Are the Weather alternates between hope and despair, calm reflection and rage, empathy and disbelief, finger pointing and self-doubt. And through it all, Foer reminds us that, counterintuitively and disconcertingly, it is people like us who are committing the greatest crime. Not the climate science deniers, as one would expect, but rather those of us who buy into the science, scale and urgency of the problem yet do not act.  Perhaps even more disturbing, our willingness or ability to act appears to be inversely correlated to the scale of the crisis. Simply put, the looming planetary catastrophe is conceptually too big for us to get our minds around – and therefore too big for us even to care enough to move. We are deer caught in our own headlights. Food for thought, to say the least.

A reviewer in The Atlantic noted that, ‘In his first two novels, Foer turned unthinkable—but real—calamities into literary opportunities, illuminating the horrors of history with his own ingenuity and sensitivity.’ In this new book, Foer works the same dark magic in non-fiction but hurls us into a calamitous future rather than into a painful past.

Get ready to care; after tonight, you may never look at a meal the same way again.

On a lighter note, I’m delighted to report that this evening is Jonathan’s fifth time speaking at the John Adams Institute – having joined us in 2002, 2005, 2010 and 2016.  Jonathan, this officially qualifies you for Platinum status in the John Adams loyalty program – and we hope you’ll keep coming back for every book.

It is my pleasure to be able to welcome Jonathan Safran Foer back to the John Adams Institute.  After his reading, I will interview Jonathan and then open the discussion to questions from the audience.