We read everywhere because we can read everywhere. Words are a constant in a world where we carry computers in our pockets and tuck entire newsstands and libraries into small slivers of technology that slip into our bags.
But words are not everywhere. Words are only where we keep them, where we contain them, where we pay to place them and where we store them until we require them. Everything is a screen, a surface for projection, a canvas upon which we place our articles and stories and scripts and photos and plays and novels and art and shows and movies and advertisements and content, all of our unending content, until you find the rare as-yet-untouched surface.
Chipotle announced Thursday that it was launching the “Cultivating Thought” series, emblazoned with the believably unbelievable tagline, “Must a cup, or bag, suffer an existence that is limited to just one humble purpose, defined merely by its simple function?” Must the cup or bag suffer, limited in purpose, defined by only its function? There’s something wonderfully Manichean about this, the notion that the crinkled Chipotle bag can either suffer with one function or soar with another purpose, and nothing in between.
Authors like Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell and George Saunders will now write short essays, and those short essays would appear on Chipotle’s bags and cups. Inside, a Sofritas burrito; outside, musings about how Bill Hader (the immensely talented former “Saturday Night Live” standout) creates the perfect cup of soda. Inside: Food. Outside: Existence, meaning and purpose.
The idea is the brainchild of Jonathan Safran Foer. He told Vanity Fair that he came up with the idea because he was at a Chipotle and realized he didn’t have anything to read. “I really just wanted to die with frustration,” Foer said, which would seem like a slight overreaction, until I think about how dreary it is to discover you have a 20-minute wait for a train and no signal with which to see what’s happening in the outside world.
Foer, a vegetarian, is the author of the book “Eating Animals,” which contained gruesome scenes of slaughterhouses and descriptions of how chickens are stored. Chipotle is a company that purchased 140 million pounds of meat last year. Vanity Fair asked about this contradiction, and Foer told them that he learned good things about Chipotle’s practices as he wrote his book. (Foer told Vanity Fair that Chipotle gave him editorial independence, making this something of a weird exercise in sponsored content.) He says he isn’t marketing anything or endorsing anyone, but merely trying to reach an audience.
“A lot of these people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores,” Foer said. “Something felt very democratic and good about this.”
I want to mock this notion, because there are about 120 million libraries in the U.S., according to the American Library Association. That’s roughly one library for every three people. There are also lots of other ways to find and read books, to say nothing of lots of ways to find and read newspapers, magazines and Web sites that offer other words in non-book form. But there’s something inherently defensible about the outcome here, the one that Foer speaks of when he mentions the “800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing.” Someone will go out to buy lunch and, for no added cost, have the chance to read something written by Morrison or Foer. It’s not an ad, it’s not a quote, it’s not a song lyric. It’s a musing about a “butterfly broken by the slam of a single raindrop on its wings.”
In the announcement issued by the company, Foer talked about how the modern world has less and less space available for literature, writing and “quiet reflection.” These essays are being pitched by Chipotle as “two-minute” readings. Will 333 words from Malcolm Gladwell, skimmed in the process of vacuuming up a burrito bowl during a hurried lunch break, change that? Or does it matter given that the customer is now given the choice between scrolling through Tumblr for a few minutes on their phone and reading something written by George Saunders?
Or, perhaps what matters most is the function being granted to the helpless, disposable bag or cup. Previously, the bag or cup was defined by function and limited by purpose, things that existed only to convey that which we wanted to consume. Now, the bag and the cup have a new meaning. They have a utility that will be unique to them in Chipotle’s restaurants (at least until the company starts printing tweets on its tortillas).
The company says its new bags and cups will arrive in restaurants in the coming weeks. In case you don’t visit Chipotle — perhaps you are partial to Moe’s — you can find some of the essays here.