Once upon a time, in one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest cities in the world, the people were so busy, they didn’t have time to finish reading lengthy works of fiction.

So three vending machines were set up, dishing out not chocolate bars or cans of drink, but free short stories to those rushing by.

In other words, the UK’s first short story vending machines have been installed in London’s Canary Wharf, issuing one, three and five-minute reads by authors from Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens at the touch of a button.

Created by French company Short Édition, the vending machines feature thousands of stories printed on scrolls of eco-friendly papyrus paper at no cost - and even feature a specially commissioned crime story, Mr Robinson, by bestselling novelist Anthony Horowitz.

Short on time

London commuters can now print out short stories, by authors including Charles Dickens, for free.
Image: Sean Pollock/Short Story Stations, Canary Wharf

Research commissioned by Canary Wharf found that around 53 million books go unfinished in the UK each year, due to lack of time caused partly by excessive scrolling through social media.

More than one-third (36%) had given up on at least one book in the past year, with more than one-quarter (30%) saying it had been six months since they last finished a book.

Lucie Moore, head of arts and events for Canary Wharf Group, said: “We’re all guilty of saying we’re too busy, but our research found a staggering 70% of us would rather get lost in a good book than down the rabbit hole of social media.”

Anthony Horowitz said he enjoyed the challenge of writing his shortest story yet: “Here’s a whodunnit, complete with suspects and clues, that can be started and finished in just a minute.

“I hope it will entertain tube travellers who will know, at least, that they won’t have the frustration of having to get off before the end!”

Global appeal

The vending machines, which issue stories at random, so you never know what you’re going to find yourself reading, are already proving popular in 200 locations around the world.

Since the first machine was installed at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in 2011, they have dispensed more than 3 million short stories, written by 8,000 authors, across the world, from Philadelphia to Hong Kong. New and classic works of fiction are also available on the Short Édition website.

Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola became such a fan, he has invested in the company and installed a dispenser at his San Francisco restaurant, Café Zoetrope.