Ways We Read: Food Containers

In continuation of last week’s post about the necessity of the short story, I want to go even smaller this week. Smaller than flash fiction, smaller than micro fiction. I want to talk about writing found on pop cups and paper bags. Yeah, you heard me.

Thinking of those little ways we can incorporate reading into our lives, I found this story about Chipotle (yes, the fast food chain) and their new campaign interesting. Their bags and cups will now feature a series of brief musings from famous people called “Cultivating Thought.” The series, which ranges from literary luminaries like Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison and author Malcolm Gladwell to funny people like SNL‘s Bill Hader and comedian Sarah Silverman, is curated by author Jonathan Safran Foer, who explains the idea behind the project in the below video.

This new project has caused something of a stir in the online literary community. Is it another sign of the publishing end of days? Is it an optimistic look at what we can do with writing given a little publishing creativity (and the backing of a large corporation)? The L.A. Review of Books went so far as to review these writings. Much like they would any other, more traditional, form of writing, they individually reviewed each entry in the Cultivating Thought catalog. After reading the article, I find I’m only interested in reading the musings of George Saunders. But it’s George Saunders, so obviously I would want to read his. You know how when an actor is really good you say, “I’d listen to her read the phone book”? I would literally read something George Saunders wrote on a paper bag. Lucky for me, now I can.

I’m not entirely wowed by this new merchandizing–I’m a little too cynical to believe a large corporation ever does anything simply for the good of mankind (i.e. when McDonalds started putting books into their happy meals; it’s great to help kids read, but not at the cost of eating the same food that has contributed to rising childhood obesity rates). Plus, there’s that little detail that none of the writers chosen for the Mexican restaurant’s series are actually Mexican, which adds another problematic layer and has drawn more backlash.

The text, pictures, and design on the Chipotle cups and bags are all very twee and pseudo-intellectual, another example of the hipster culture bleeding into middle America. But I guess I can’t write it off entirely. A customer of Chipotle will go into the store to eat their burrito no matter what, and now at least they have something to read while they eat. There is nothing inherently wrong in that. We can all benefit from reading another person’s perspective–be it in an essay, fiction, or a poem. In our fast-paced culture, I’ll take the opportunity to read whenever I can. But I will draw the line at reproductions of Raymond Carver’s stories on KFC buckets of original recipe chicken. We have to have some standards.

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