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New search engine connects literary dots
NEW YORK (AP) — Author Jennifer Gilmore is reading a biography of the late David Foster Wallace. She's curious about his most famous book, the novel "Infinite Jest," and wants to poke around on the Internet to learn more.
Her destination is Small Demons, www.smalldemons.com, an encyclopedia and "Storyverse" that catalogues names, places, songs, products and other categories for thousands of books.
Officially launched in August, Small Demons is the book world's latest mind game and guilty pleasure and a proving ground that everything really is connected. You can find out how many books mention the Beatles or the Pacific Ocean or Rice Krispies. You can find answers to questions you never meant to ask, like whether writers favor Marlboros or Camels (Camels have the edge, 85-65), or which brands of cold medicine are cited in EL James' "Fifty Shades of Gray" (NyQuil, Advil, Tylenol).
"I was sure they featured 'Infinite Jest,' which of course they have," Gilmore, whose novels include "Something Red" and "Golden Country," wrote in a recent email. "I can get deep(er) into the Wallace brain there and as I do so, learn about the context, the ether around the book. I can relent and buy Wittgenstein or 'Ethan Frome' or Irving Berlin."
Small Demons founder Valla Vakili, a former Yahoo executive, dates the idea back to 2005, November to be exact. He read Jean-Claude Izzo's novel "Total Chaos" and became curious about the book's setting, in Marseilles. The main character was a French police officer with a taste for malt whiskey and jazz and blues.
"I had a vacation planned to Madrid and Paris, and I changed my Paris leg to go to Marseilles instead," Vakili says. "I spent a week in Marseilles drinking the drinks, eating the food, and roaming the streets described in the book. I came back from that trip convinced that many of the best experiences we can find are within books. And that if we could gather them all up and put them in one place, we could unlock a world of pretty incredible discovery."
The company's name, which could be mistaken for a New Wave band, is itself a game of free association. Vakili was inspired in part by a Jorge Luis Borges passage declaring that history "is the handwriting produced by a Minor god in order to communicate with a Demon." As Vakili sees it, "minor Gods" are writers, and demons the passion to read and to write. And so, "Small Demons," or, as Vakili likes to joke, the devil is in the details.
Looking through the site is like knocking on a door, then another and another. You might start with Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," the basis for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Click on the image of the book's cover and you will find a variety of sub-categories: People in the book (from Lincoln himself to abolitionist Frederick Douglass), places identified, songs mentioned ("The Star Spangled Banner," ''La Marseillaise"), newspapers cited.