Outside a Pico Union gas station, Valla Vakili is reading William Gibson's Spook Country: “Close to the tents under the freeway, Mr. Sippee catered to an eclectic clientele of the more functionally homeless, sex workers of varied gender and presentation, pimps, police officers, drug dealers, office workers, artists, musicians, the map-lost as well as the life-lost, and anyone in serious search of the perfect broasted potatoes.”
Vakili puts down the book and leans over his own paper plate of chicken and pressure-fried “broasted” potatoes, positioned on the hood of his car — potatoes he purchased at, yes, Mr. Sippee, which is housed inside the station. “This place isn't on Open Table, and your friends aren't going to recommend it to you,” he says. “But you'll come here because it's mentioned in this William Gibson book.”
That intersection between literary reference and real-life experience is why Vakili, 38, started Small Demons, a website that collects, catalogs and indexes details from both fiction and nonfiction books. Search the site for Spook Country and you'll see a long list of references, from Mr. Sippee to Star Wars, complete with the passages that mention them. Tap Star Wars and you'll see a list of all the other books that reference the film, written by authors from Chuck Klosterman to Glenn Beck.
“It really does tap into the associative way that our brains work these days,” says Emily Pullen, former ordering manager at Skylight Books. “It's the best kind of Internet rabbit hole.”
Vakili was a vice president at Yahoo in 2005 when he read Total Chaos, part of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy. Engrossed in the details, he canceled a vacation to Madrid and headed to Marseilles instead, creating an itinerary based on the book's locations, down to buying a specific scotch — Lagavulin — because the characters drank it. “They had this power because you came across them in a story,” he says. “You're under this spell.”
Literary tourism isn't new, but Vakili's idea was: harnessing technology to annotate books. He gathered a staff of former top-level execs at Yahoo and Myspace to launch the startup (the name itself a reference to a short story by Jorge Luis Borges).
Using technology developed with the content suggestion engine Zemanta, Small Demons has indexed about 5,000 books. In a few weeks they plan to take it public so anyone can access it without registering.
Even in beta mode, Small Demons has won praise from the literary community. Says legendary New York agent Nicole Aragi, “It has the effect of both expanding the world evoked by the story and of making the experience more intimate by pulling the reader closer to the minutiae that make up those imagined lives.”
Richard Nash, a Brooklyn-based independent publisher, was so impressed that he joined the team last year as its content and community director. “It was thrilling to think that this was something both completely new and entirely grounded in actual reading experience. And, candidly, it was also clear to me this was something that could pay for itself. It could, in a way, put books back in the center of the cultural universe.”
How exactly Small Demons will pay for itself is not something Vakili will discuss. But it's already fulfilling its mission: Pullen says she recently used the site to make fiction recommendations for a traveler to Southeast Asia who wanted to read stories set there.
Or take the map of Los Angeles that Small Demons produced. It's dotted with literary references from the site's archive — Don DeLillo's passage on the Watts Towers; Michael Connelly name-checking Disney Concert Hall.
“L.A. is all about storytelling and aspiring to roles and not taking the difference between reality and fiction that seriously,” Vakili says, sponging fried chicken grease from his fingers. “This is about discovering it in a completely different way.”