Readers in bygone days might have described me as a cad and a bounder. My misdemeanour – having fallen out of love, I have decided to reveal all. My infatuation was not with a person but with what I saw as an altruistic ideal. Discovering otherwise came as a horrible surprise and while we remain good friends, the romance, perhaps more realistically an episode of unrequited love, is over and needs explanation.
The affair, which was with the French company ‘shortédition’, started last June at the beginning of my summer in Brittany. In London, my French lessons are with Thierry; in France they are with Marie, who delights in presenting new challenges. At the end of my first lesson she gave me three rolls of paper, on each was printed a short story to be read for homework. Over the summer I would be getting three more each week which would make around fifty by October and my return to London. With a twinkle, she added that, were I French, reading the shortest story would take me one minute; the longest five minutes and the middle one, three.
The stories were printed on scrolls of narrow paper similar to the receipts at supermarket check outs. Marie’s supply of stories came free from the railway station at Quimper. There, a dispenser in the form of a metre-high, orange-topped bollard, prints out stories at the press of any one of three buttons; appropriately labelled 1min, 3min and 5min.
Stories varied enormously; some were historical, some biographical, some more akin to children’s tales, some whodunits, some unclear, some profound, some touching and so on. One in particular, a poem telling of the last wishes of a dying man, still haunts me. Each story took me around five times longer to read than the time designated – clearly I still have some way to go!
The pleasure of reading the stories was enhanced by my discovery that the project was based on altruism. My investigation on the web had revealed an idea of genius. ‘Shortédition’ was launched in Grenoble in 2011. With the help of start-up funds, four entrepreneurs ‘passionate about literature and technology’ devised a scheme to provide the public with stories free of charge. The group was bent on ‘saving the art of reading’, of ‘opening up literature to everybody’, of ‘converting dead time to reading time’, and all for free. In its first seven years the company had established around 150 bollards, most of them are in France and placed in sites such as railway stations, public libraries and universities.
The technology is clever – through the internet the Grenoble headquarters loads each distributor with a bank of 500-1000 stories and, from these, stories are randomly selected and then printed at the press of the relevant button. In all, the company has a collection of 75,000 vetted stories ready for distribution. The stories stored in the bollards are regularly changed with updates sometimes having a particular theme – in December, it was Christmas.
The discovery of such an altruistic and ingenious charity was thrilling. Imagine, in modern-day France there was a group of philanthropic donors willing to spend their money simply to promote reading. That was the dream I fell for, but then came a rude awakening.
When I was preparing this blog, with plans to extol the wonders of the shortédition project, I realised that I needed to know more than the picture painted on their website. Of particular importance were the underlying technology and the financial arrangements. Three phone calls later the story became clear.
The company told me how it is responsible for installing the bollards and for the maintenance of its internal workings and content. External maintenance of the site and the provision of electricity etc. is the responsibility of the site’s owner, who rents its bollard from Shortédition for the sum 350-460€ per month. Then came a crucial statement; a senior member of staff told me with some pride that “this year, for the first time, the company is set to make money”. There it was; while shortédition was a new kind of publishing house, the profit motive had always been part of its portfolio. With this revelation, the altruistic ideal that their website had helped me weave, collapsed.
Providing short stories on demand for those waiting for a train or dreaming at a library (or studying French), is ingenious and has given me enormous pleasure. However, in keeping with any publishing house, the primary motive of this provider is profit rather than altruism – with literature an ingenious, not to say cynical, means to an end. I felt tricked and with that my infatuation dimmed.
I worry that in telling my story and loading all the blame on shortédition, I am being disingenuous. But isn’t that what cads and bounders traditionally do?