MAY 19, 2014
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER’s new Cultivating Thought: Author Series at Chipotle has a slightly uncomfortable name. It suggests that we Chipotle patrons had just kind of been sitting here, mowing down our lunches, blankly existing, uncultivated, thought-less, until Foer came along with his “brainchild”: to provide us all with short works from famous writers printed right on our soda cups and burrito bags. But so many literary lions participated that I was instantly wild to read Chipotle’s whole catalog. I have now done so, and will review each publication below.
The following authors were persuaded by Foer, the project’s “curator,” to produce original writing to be printed on the bags and cups of the neophyte publisher:
Toni Morrison (cup)
Malcolm Gladwell (cup)
Sarah Silverman (cup)
Jonathan Safran Foer (cup)
Michael Lewis (cup)
Bill Hader (cup)
Judd Apatow (bag)
George Saunders (bag)
Steven Pinker (bag)
Sheri Fink (bag)
I approached these works in as hopeful a state as I could muster. It’s reassuring, if only marginally so, to realize that in the alleged twilight of printed books, as conventional publishers are ground to powder beneath the heel of Amazon (and Google), that the irrepressibility of language, the empire of ideas, will almost certainly find a way — however weird and unlikely a way — to persist, and to spread.
That said, Foer’s remarks to Vanity Fair on this project inspired little confidence:
I mean, I wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s [well, why not, exactly?], but what interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds [wat] having access [!] to good [!] writing [!]. A lot of those people [‘those people’] don’t have access to libraries [?!] [(why not, if so)], or bookstores [?!]. Something felt very democratic [?!] and good [?!] about this.
(a) Jonathan Safran Foer: how much are you getting paid for this exercise in democracy?
(b) Is there anyone in America who has “access” to a Chipotle, but not to a library or bookstore? If so, who? Who are “those people.”
(c) exactly how is a two-minute story on a fast-food cup, even one written by Toni Morrison or George Saunders, making up for the lack of “those people”’s access to a library?
Chipotle anticipates that it will take about two minutes to read each of its new pieces (though I found some to be quite a bit meatier than others). This raises a further question: can Jonathan Safran Foer, or anyone, eat a Chipotle lunch in two minutes? Those burritos are the size of a person’s head! I do not believe it would be at all advisable to eat one even in four minutes (cup, bag.) Also, the idea of a two-minute reading experience seems suspiciously like another of The Man’s attempts to make employees feel guilty for doing anything but working every second of every day. The four-minute lunch! I can already see it coming. And don’t imagine that you’ll be able to get additional cups or bags to read during a lunch of humane and reasonable duration, because they will only contain more burritos and soda, thus getting us nowhere.
I note in passing that the bag format lends itself far better to thought cultivation than does the cup. You can’t read the cup while you are drinking, for example. Plus, the conical shape does something unfortunate to the potential cultivation of thoughts, like when you have too much handwriting to fit on an envelope and it gets all crammed and squashed-feeling at the end.
Toni Morrison, “Two-Minute Seduction”: The Nobel-winning author’s first foray into the cup genre is a clear success. Her evanescently brief tale of a humiliating crush on a fabulous writer curiously mirrors the cup-reader’s experience. For here we are, just like the narrator — not lying outside on a wet lawn, it is true, but still: crushing on a fabulous writer, and mildly humiliated. “I swallowed it all while my mind filled with language, measure, music, knowledge.” (Indeed.) It’s a bagatelle, but a sublime one.
Reading this first Chipotle cup brought to mind the long-ago delight of reading cereal boxes. Though cereal boxes are unlikely to have ever been curated by any novelist, it must be admitted that some of them were pretty spectacular, with graphics, stories, puzzles, mazes, all sorts of interesting stuff. Morrison’s Chipotle story, however, is markedly superior to any Cap’n Crunch maze that I can remember. I submit that this tiny fiction is far superior, even, to a Dr. Bronner label.
Thoughts Cultivated? Yes.
Malcolm Gladwell, “Two-Minute Barn Raising”: Here is a reminiscence of the day Gladwell and his father volunteered to help out at a Mennonite barn-raising. The author appears to believe it noteworthy that people of different faiths and beliefs can work together. “If people of different colors and creeds are to get along, we think we need to practice approval and agreement and acceptance,” he writes. “But my father didn’t accept the Mennonite way of life that day.”
It is impressive that the Gladwellian house style of infuriatingly lazy reasoning can manifest itself in full on a Chipotle cup. “Approval and agreement and acceptance” means that we approve and agree and accept that others should be free to live in the way that they choose, not that we should agree to live as they do. For heaven’s sake. Let us hope that the many Gladwell cups that are bound to be hurled in a rage across Chipotle dining rooms all over this great nation will have at least been emptied first.
Thoughts Cultivated? And how!
Sarah Silverman, “Two-Minute Index”: A string of 25 little jokes, mostly wonderful and all very short, creating a pleasing pizzicato effect. The author is a natural fit for the cup genre; the Silverman worldview, which manages somehow to be both bilious and chipper, suits the form perfectly (though there’s nothing the slightest bit scatological, obviously; I feel almost certain that somewhere there must be a Silverman Chipotle draft containing only horrifyingly hilarious, unprintable jokes relating to cups, beans, salsa, etc.) It took me far longer than two minutes to read these jokes because as ever, I have to think about whether I agree with Silverman on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and a little nervously.
The one I liked best: “The two saddest consecutive sentences: ‘He just wants attention. Don’t give it to him.’”
Thoughts Cultivated? Yes.
Jonathan Safran Foer, “Two-Minute Personality Test”: A series of would-be thoughtprovoking questions that instead provoke total exasperation. They are all terrible, but I found the last one most particularly and powerfully irritating: “You know it’s a ‘murder of crows’ and a ‘wake of buzzards’ but it’s a what of ravens, again? What is it about death that you’re afraid of? How does it make you feel to know that it’s an ‘unkindness of ravens’?”
Foer’s casual presumption and smug moral certainty drove me up a tree in record time. While it is completely unsurprising to learn that he is not a fan of the greatest British crime novelist of the last several decades, Ruth Rendell, surely Foer might at least have heard of the (excellent) mystery, An Unkindness of Ravens. Also no, I did not know it was a “wake of buzzards.” Entirely grating, from stem to stern.
Thoughts Cultivated? No.
Michael Lewis, “The Two-Minute Minute”: Ordinarily I am a big fan of this author, but the cup form is just not for him. “At night I sometimes write down things that happened that day,” he writes, for all the world as if the keeping of a journal were a totally ground-breaking notion. He describes this practice as a “trick for slowing time — or at least, my perception of it.” He doesn’t call it a journal, though. Okay! Also: a weird, sad pet story. No fun at all.
Thoughts Cultivated? No.
Bill Hader, “Two-Minute Recipe For The Perfect Fountain Drink”: A very thin entry. Furthermore, consists of a recipe devised by the author and his sisters in their youth for a version of the ghastly (NOT perfect) drink of mixed fountain sodas known, in Southern California at least, as a “Suicide.”
On the upside: Hader and his sisters obviously super fun, despite their culinary deficiencies.
Thoughts Cultivated? No.
Judd Apatow, “Two Minutes of Rambling Wisdom”: Banal, though not particularly bad, or wrong; not wisdom so much as “advice”, e.g. “Don’t be a jerk. Try to love everyone. Give more than you take.” Inspirational Quotes, basically, like your grandma would have in a little book by the telephone or embroidered on a wee pillow.
Thoughts Cultivated? No.
George Saunders, “Two-Minute Note To The Future”: The best Chipotle literature by a mile. (Big surprise! Not!) Here is a ravishingly beautiful miniature speculative fiction short story printed on a Chipotle bag, written by George Saunders. It has hilarious jokes, a wildly imagined future, style, social commentary, sadness, and hope. It is 388 perfect words long and pretty much makes me want to throw in the towel on this whole writing thing. It is also an incontrovertible self-contained argument in favor of printing literature on lunch bags.
Thoughts Cultivated? Hahahahaha, stop it.
Steven Pinker, “A Two-Minute Case For Optimism”: I am not often in agreement with this eminent neuroscientist, but his Chipotle bag delivers the goods in more ways than one, LOL! Just the sort of thing to put you in a slightly better mood while polishing off a massive burrito. By now we are familiar with Dr. Pinker’s (imperfectly argued) views on the decline of violence worldwide, but surely nobody can argue with his concluding thought: “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”
Thoughts Cultivated? Maybe a couple.
Sheri Fink, “Two-Minute Case Against Limits”: The doctor and author wonders whether we sometimes “really have the problem we think we have”, going on to describe the human tendency to try to struggle free of unpleasant consequences. (Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t!) Unenlightening.
Thoughts Cultivated? Not too many.