It’s a common occurrence — if you’re lucky.
You’re wrapped up in an amazing book, and you come across a reference to a song, a work of art, a place, or (perhaps most often) another book, and you think, “I gotta Google that later.”
Or maybe you’re the type who tweets that reference immediately. Or perhaps you make a note in your Kindle, or ask your Friend Who Knows Everything Cool*.
Anyway, you do look into it, and bang. Your life is a little bit richer.
This urge to click/tweet/ask FWKEC happened lately with me while reading Jennifer Egan’s magnificent A Visit from the Goon Squad. In one of the short-story-like chapters, an autistic boy who obsessively catalogs musical pauses in rock and roll raves about the song “Mighty Sword” by Irish band the Frames, a good band I’d totally forgotten about.
After some hunting, I found the song a couple of days later. The kid’s right. It rocks.
Whatever your method of researching the cultural references that pop up in books, it’s probably not very quick or likely to lead to other new discoveries. (Unless you’re the type that likes to browse Wikipedia, in which case, ew.) That’s why I’m excited that a new website is offering a sophisticated, searchable, interactive database for researching those hidden thought trinkets contained within books without going to Google or anywhere else.
It’s called Small Demons. And it, too, rocks.
Like an encyclopedic playground for book lovers, Small Demons collects and catalogs cultural references in books and displays them in a slick database that allows users to create profiles and interact with the site’s content.
It calls this content the Storyverse — the songs, artists, paintings, cities, authors, books, scientists, celebrities, poems, and even cocktails and bars that authors use to build the cultural architecture around their stories.
This video by Adam Lisagor explains the concept:
For every book in Small Demons’ database, there are about 250 people, places, and things referenced. These things, in turn are cross-referenced with other works uploaded to the database.
One of my favorite features is that each reference is accompanied by a generous quotation from the book for context.
For example, when one of the characters in Goon Squad mentions Lucian Freud, it’s in this lovely character thumbnail:
Her face was fragile and mischievous, pale enough to absorb hues from the world around her — purple, green, pink — like a face painted by Lucian Freud.
Small Demons indexes “Mighty Sword” too, along with a link to purchase the song from Amazon or iTunes.
You must create an account to even browse the site, but since jumping in, I’ve learned some pretty interesting and diverse marginalia: such as the fact that Texas writer Larry McMurtry has mentioned Michael Jordan in four different books. And that Don DeLillo drops a Longines clock in Underworld.
I’m interested to see what social features the site adds as it moves away from beta. Though the site draws a lot of reference content from Freebase, it might be interesting to let users post their own content, draw connections to books that aren’t in the database. There’s also been some talk of allowing authors to create verified accounts and curate their own content.
I’m definitely going to turn to Small Demons next time I encounter a song in a novel. Or just about any proper noun.
*You know who you are, dude.