File this under: Greatest Invention Ever, cross-filed under: Thanks, France! (I’m running out of room in that latter filing cabinet, quelle surprise).
Two French bibliophiles, Quentin Pleplé and Christophe Sibieude, were buying snacks at a vending machine in 2013 when one of them postured (because really, this is literally what I fantasize most French men walk around discussing): “Wouldn’t it be better if these dispensed short stories instead?” A year later the pair had developed a prototype machine that did just that, and by October of 2015 they had their first public installation at the Tourist Information office in Grenoble. They’re called Short Edition, and they call themselves the Distributeur d’histoires courtes — the distributor of short stories. Their website says, “Notre ambition est de voir fleurir des Distributeurs un peu partout pour promouvoir la lecture – et l’écriture – et pour faire connaître nos auteurs.” (“Our ambition is to see blooming Distributors everywhere to promote reading – and writing – and to publicize our authors.”) The machines are tall cylinders with just a few buttons, marked with numbers corresponding to the length of time each story takes to read. If you have only one minute while waiting in line at a teller, press “1”, and a short strip of paper spits out of the machine. If you have a longer lunch break later on in the day, press “5”, and a slightly longer story prints out for you. And the best part is, they’re free.
The stories are randomly selected by the machine when you press a button, but have to have first made the cut and been chosen by readers on their website, though, oddly, the majority of the stories printed by the machines are written by authors who wish to remain anonymous. These have actually been perfect for me to practice my reading comprehension en Français. The best of the stories are published in traditional, physical book form, or as audiobooks, or e-books, and now, in the machines.
Why a machine that distributes literature? A 2013 poll by Institut français d’opinion publique (Ifop), “found that seventeen per cent of [France’s] population had written a manuscript of one kind or another, most of them unpublished.” Short Edition has been a free publishing platform for writers since 2011, and estimates they have 10,000 authors and a readership of around 150,000. In an interview with The New Yorker, Sibieude said:
The written word isn’t dead…Smartphones have blurred the limits between our professional life and our distractions. The paper format provides a break from omnipresent screens. People may not have reacted so strongly to our vending machines six years ago, when smartphones hadn’t become essential to all parts of our lives yet.
Men after my own heart!
I caught a segment on Short Edition on CBS Sunday Morning this weekend my first thought was that this was just too good to be true. My second thought was to figure out how quickly I could get to Grenoble. (My third thought was, “How well can I translate my own novel in French?”)
But maybe I don’t need to go as far as Grenoble after all. Director Francis Ford Copolla recently installed one in his café, Zeotrope, in San Francisco. I’ve never been to the city by the bay, and this might make the perfect excuse! You can rent the machines from Short Edition for €500/mo., which seems like a worthy investment. (I’m looking at you, Starbucks!).