Volume 21 Issue 19 2013-05-24
Databases aren’t the most poetic things. Their discrete pieces of information, often broken down to minimal parts, are a bit like the individual letters of the alphabet: building blocks waiting to be shaped into useful forms. Now, an entrepreneur is building a database of every person, place, and thing ever mentioned in a novel. But will it really encourage people to read?
The Internet start-up is called Small Demons, and The Globe and Mail explains the concept as “a growing electronic index that aims to tag and cross-reference the occurrence of almost every person, place and thing mentioned in almost every ‘narrative’ book ever written.”
On the one hand, I get it. Valla Vakili, the start-up’s founder, has announced that he wants “to do something that caters to pathological obsession.” Whatever floats your boat, and heaven knows I’ve found myself caught up in that compulsive, 2 am YouTube loop (the one that makes your brain want to click on just one more silly pet trick).
But on the other hand, Small Demons is being pitched as a way to aid discoverability and encourage reading—and that doesn’t make much sense.
Vakili has said that he likes to be thought of as the publishing industry’s “partner in promoting the discoverability of books.” And I suppose that if you’re talking about forming tenuous links between books, based on details stripped of all context, then that counts as discoverability.
Suppose, for example, that you’ve just finished reading The Lost World by Michael Crichton. You really liked the triceratops. So you go to the Small Demons database and search for all the narrative books ever written that mention a triceratops. What you might find is the children’s title Dinosaur Cove #2: Charge of the Triceratops. Or perhaps The Alien Life of Wayne Barlow, a retrospective of the artist’s work.
But will this method replicate the serendipity of browsing in a bookstore, of finding new sci-fi or adventure authors because their titles happen to be shelved next to Crichton’s? No. It will give readers a list of new books and authors, but odds are that very, very few of those out-of-context results will be of any interest. In fact, using such a random system could very well increase the amount of time it takes to find something you’re actually interested in reading.
And while Small Demons might have a YouTube-like quality that will see users spending hours following fascinating (and endless) trails, it seems that this creates the very antithesis of the focused, long-form attention span needed for reading—especially narrative works.
There are countless articles and studies pointing to the fractured attention spans that the Internet is helping create. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, put it well in this 2010 Telegraph piece: “Even when I was away from my computer, my mind seemed hungry for constant stimulation, for quick hits of information. I felt perpetually distracted.” Literary database or not, a concept like Small Demons seems tailor-made to encourage that same type of shallow, rapid browsing.
The concept may be intriguing. But when it comes to mixing books and sprites, I think I’ll stick to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons—and do some actual reading.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
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