Erin Roux Explores Short Story Vending Machines as Mending Machines of the “Literary Experience”


by Erin Roux

In an age of smart phones and e-readers, it is not often that people indulge in the beauty and simplicity that is the classic literary experience: the reading of a physical book. In the last two decades, ink on paper has been replaced by pixels and iPads. The turning of a page is now a mindless swipe. The appeal of the hard copy is diminishing as people succumb to the allure of the screen.

Interestingly, though, Inverse reports that the city of Grenoble in southeastern France has caused many to consider new directions for the intersection of literature and technology in its implementation of “vending machines” in public areas that dispense short stories: a modern concept that is bringing back the classic experience. These new and completely free devices were created from a collaboration between a publishing company called Short Édition and Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle. They have been placed in eight different places around the city in an attempt to fill up various unproductive moments that are often spent scrolling on smartphones. The machines distribute original short stories that are written by members of Short Édition and are dispensed at random to the readers, though they can pick how long they want their story based on how much time that have to fill while waiting around with a choice of one, three, or five-minute stories.

This is a small yet significant return to the practice of the reading of a hard copy as opposed to spending time plugged in. Reading on anything other than a digital device—be it a slip of paper or a trade paperback—eliminates the other distractions that technology allows for. When reading on a smartphone it’s easy to reply to an incoming text or watch some video on Facebook. But with a physical copy, when feeling the pages in your hands, it’s hard not to be absorbed in the work.

The feel of a page is special and characteristic of the original experience most readers had with a physical book until digital publishing changed the sole method of delivery. It’s an experience that people generations before us have enjoyed, and also something that is on the cusp of disappearing. It’s important to remember the point of literature, which is in part to be connected with the past and to experience things that can’t all be experienced in one lifetime. Grenoble’s short story machines are proof that the future and the past can continue to coexist and that physical copies of literature won’t disappear anytime soon.

More importantly, the fact that access to these short story vending machines is free to the public allows the literary experience to be available to everyone. Instead of spending free time on social media, people can fill little moments with brilliant stories, new perspectives, and appealing prose. Much like libraries are home to free information for those who search for it, these machines are like little libraries for those who give a minute or two of their lives to experience it. The classic literary experience is not deteriorating—it is changing for the better.

The ability for the old and the new to coexist while still staying true to the tradition of literature will allow easier access to a much wider audience than ever before. And better yet, the smartphones and e-readers are out of sight, out of mind.