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Foer attended Georgetown Day School and Princeton University. In 1995, while a freshman at Princeton, Safran Foer took an introductory writing course with author Joyce Carol Oates, who took an interest in his writing, telling him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy". Foer later recalled that "she was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that." Oates served as the advisor to Safran Foer's senior thesis, an examination of the life of his maternal grandfather, the Holocaust survivor Louis Safran. For his thesis, Foer received Princeton's Senior Creative Writing Thesis Prize.
Foer graduated from Princeton in 1999 with a degree in Philosophy, and traveled to Ukraine to expand his thesis. In 2001, he edited the anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, to which he contributed the short story "If the Aging Magician Should Begin to Believe." His Princeton thesis grew into a novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002. The book earned him a National Jewish Book Award and a Guardian First Book Award. In 2005, Liev Schreiber wrote and directed a film adaptation of the novel, which starred Elijah Wood.
Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was published in 2005. In the novel, Foer used 9/11 as a backdrop for the story of 9-year-old Oskar Schell, who learns how to deal with the death of his father in the World Trade Center. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close used many nontraditional writing techniques known as visual writing. It follows multiple but interconnected storylines, is peppered with photographs of doorknobs and other such oddities, and ends with a 14-page flipbook. Foer's use of these techniques resulted in both glowing praise and excoriation from critics. Despite diverse criticism, the novel sold briskly and was translated into several languages. In addition, the film rights were purchased by Warner Bros. and Paramount for a film to be produced by Scott Rudin, with Billy Elliot and The Reader director Stephen Daldry attached to direct.
Foer has been an occasional vegetarian (some years vegetarian, some years omnivore, occasionally vegan) since the age of 10, and in 2006 he recorded the narration for the documentary If This is Kosher..., a harsh exposÃ© of the kosher certification process that advocates vegetarianism. In his childhood, teen, and college years of vegetarianism, he called himself vegetarian but still often ate animals. Foer writes he is now a vegetarian. He does not mention being vegan in his writings. Foer published his first book of non-fiction, Eating Animals, on November 2, 2009. Foer said that he had long been "uncertain about how I felt [about eating meat]" and that the birth of his first child inspired "an urgency because I would have to make decisions on his behalf." The book intersperses a personal narrative with a more "broad argument" about vegetarianism.