Small Demons: Seeking A Better Path to Book Discovery

In Digital by Guest Contributor

Los Angeles-based Web start-up Small Demons uses cultural references and details embedded in books as a starting point to aid readers in finding their next book

By Valla Vakili, CEO, Small Demons

A few years ago I was planning a trip to Madrid and Paris from Los Angeles. I was also deep into Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseilles Trilogy, in an English translation published by Europa Editions.

By the time I finished the book, I had replaced the Paris leg of my trip with Marseilles. I’d found Lagavulin, the main character’s scotch of choice. (Mine was always Laphroiag.) And a whole lot of interesting jazz. Of course I wanted to read the next book in the series,Chourmo, and of course, it wasn’t available in English translation yet.

And yet the Total Chaos story continued — with a new city to discover, new music, a scotch that would forever challenge my loyalty to Laphroaig. The story had leapt out from the book and into my life.

Out of that experience, the idea for Small Demons was born. To anyone who’d listen, I’d open up the book, point to the details inside, and say, “Look, a book can take you everywhere. All we have to do is grab all these details and connect them to where they go.”

I did that for two years until I’d worn out the spine of Total Chaos. Then I decided to visualize it, put the idea into a simple graphic. Of a web page where we’d represent every interesting detail in a book — every person, place and thing inside — and show where a story can take you.

That’s what it took. From there came Small Demons, the company. Today, we’re poring through stories to reveal the interesting details inside them, the people, places and things that matter — a concordance of the world’s literature. And in the process what started as something interesting to me has become something more. Something necessary. A new path to discovery.

That’s bold, but true. Here’s why.

Culture has a cadence, and that cadence reveals itself in the work. In the text, in the song, in the art. Where works influence each other, where creators interpret each other just as they do the world.

Borges knew this, in Kafka and his precursors. To read culture like Borges, though, to see what he saw — that’s inaccessible to nearly all of us. And yet today, technology is catching up to Borges. We can sift through works. We can look for the details that matter. Categorize them, visualize them, add depth and context to them. We can find Kafka, and his precursors. And in so doing, piece by piece, reconstitute that cadence, that natural way stories connect to each other, and to the world.

Why bother?

Timing matters hugely. Today, cultural discovery — how we find that next book to read, that next song to listen to, drink to drink, movie to watch, place to visit — it’s all up for grabs. With two contenders eyeing the spoils.

First, the retail machine. People who bought this, also bought that. Culture as a web of SKUs.

Next, the social signal. Reviews, ratings and likes. Culture as a web of opinion.

In each camp, deep technology and huge user bases. Each pushing toward a kind of sameness. Similar purchases, similar likes, often similar categories — book to book, song to song, movie to movie.

Culture is nothing like this. It crosses categories and embraces difference. It’s the work that’s lost on shelves for decades, ignored by all buyers, only to return as a classic. It’s the piece that’s scorned when published, not a like in sight, only to rise as a masterpiece. And it’s all the details that connect those works to creators forever changed by them, to future audiences.

By tracing and connecting those details, we restore the cadence of culture. We lay down a path of discovery where your next song, your next movie, your next book — your next anything — comes from the stories you’ve lost yourself in, the writers you can’t get enough of, the characters you can’t forget.

DISCUSS: How Do You Choose What Book to Buy Next?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.