Let’s take a trip back to the beginning of the millennium. It’s fall of 2001. Jonathan Franzen’s just released a new novel, The Corrections. And it’s getting some buzz—enough buzz that Oprah herself has selected the book for her book club. You know the club, right? The one where all the books are labeled with a big, shiny O sticker then sell roughly a zillion copies.
Only, Jonathan Franzen? He’s not too cool with this. Sure, he’s agreed to appear on the Oprah show. He even meets with her for an extended interview. But then, on an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, he expresses his discomfort with the fact that his book has been chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, saying that he fears the shiny O sticker label will dissuade men from picking it up. “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience,” he tells interviewer Terry Gross, “and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’”
Ouch. Franzen’s invitation onto Oprah’s couch is rescinded, and Oprah moves on to the next book club pick on her list.
Fast forward to today, 14 years and many Franzen controversies later (remember the time he talked about adopting an Iraqi war orphan to help his creative process?). Incidentally, Franzen’s got a new book out, Purity. He’s also done another Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross about said book. And once more, he’s got a massive corporate entity ready to back him. Not Oprah this time: It’s Chipotle.
Insert record-scratch noise.
Yep. Franzen is one of the latest batch of 12 authors to sign on to Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series, which means that his short essay, “Two-Minute Driving Lesson,” will appear on the burrito chain’s cups and paper bags.*
Honestly, we can see the difference here. The series is curated by Jonathan Safran Foer (you might know him as the author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, among others). The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who in Literature Today list: Amy Tan, Lois Lowry, Colson Whitehead, Laura Hillenbrand, M.T. Anderson, and on, and on. In an interview on the Cultivating Thought website, he explains the reason behind his participation in the series: “Honestly, Chipotle store credit was a decisive factor. Chipotle is my go-to fast food restaurant. I also admire its wish to be a good corporate citizen.”
We get you, Jonathan Franzen. Free Chipotle is enough to sway even the strongest corporation-hater among us. One question, though: What if readers in the signing line are put off by your endorsement of burritos? It may sound absurd, but so does honoring the whims of men who are turned off by a critically beloved book just because it has an Oprah sticker.
*The — actually genuinely insightful — essay “Two-Minute Driving Lesson” appears below in its entirety:
XING PED: We’re told that, as a species, human beings are hard-wired to take the short view, to discount a future that may never come anyway; just ask the traffic engineers who compose the texts that are painted on city streets. They seem to presume that you’re driving with your eyes fixed on a spot directly beyond the hood of your vehicle. You’re supposed to be like: Oh, now, there’s a PED… and now here comes a XING (which looks Chinese but isn’t)… and then—well, here things become somewhat incoherent, because, if you’re taking such an extremely short view, how are you even supposed to see a pedestrian who’s starting to cross the street? It’s weird. When you learn to drive, you’re told to aim high with your steering. But if the message you read, in a normal top-to-bottom way, is BUS TO YIELD, you’re making a mistake. The furiously merging bus is expecting you to yield. Only a bad driver would know this. And so, to survive in a modern world in which not only traffic engineering but our reigning political and economic systems reward shortsightedness, you learn to think, or to not think, like a bad driver. You YIELD TO BUS.
You take the paper cup, you drink your drink, you throw the cup away. Every two minutes in America, sixty thousand paper cups are chucked. Far away, on another continent, the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest has been leveled to create vast eucalyptus plantations to supply the world with pulp, but that’s way beyond the hood of your vehicle. You have places much nearer you need to be. Your life is complicated enough already without dragging a reusable cup around with you all day. Even if you carried one, you know you’re living in a world designed for bad drivers, and what earthly difference is your 0.00015 discarded paper cups per minute going to make? What difference does it make if the emissions of your vehicle are infinitesimally hastening the arrival of an all but uninhabitable and not so distant future? Human beings are human beings, and hard-wiring is hard-wiring. We’ll X that bridge if we come to it.