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Shelf Life: The Devil in the Details

The Devil in the Details

By Nick Bergus

He was an old man who fished alone. . .”  

In college I had a professor who was obsessed with The Old Man and the Sea. In his lectures he would dismantle the story down to its floorboards, searching for hidden details he insisted Hemingway had tucked away. These clues, my professor maintained, would reward their decipherers with insight into a fuller story and deeper meaning.

As I remember it, he was particularly interested in parsing the details the story offered through the conversations the old man and the boy had about baseball — about the Yankees and “the great DiMaggio.”

To drive home the importance of the book’s details, the professor’s final exam required us to recall, verbatim, the story’s 26-word opening sentence. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

He was, in my estimation, an obsessive, perhaps reading too deeply into the book’s details. But in stories, I now understand, details do matter. And, to me, the details that come from the real world we readers inhabit are some of the best parts of stories.

I love the bits and pieces of Iowa City and its characters and environs that show up in books from alums of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, be it a particular house I’ve walked by for years or a slightly veiled reference to a local who left the author for another locally known woman. Those details connect our nonfictional world to those worlds of fiction we dive into.

My own minor obsession is why I’m so intrigued by Small Demons. I’m not exactly sure how to describe what it is. A database? A clearinghouse of literary information? Whatever it is, this new online project is a big enough deal to have the backing of some high-tech heavyweights and $3 million from investors.

Small Demons gives readers access to the connections between real life and their books by cataloging those valuable little details and making them browsable and searchable. Say, for example, you are interested in books that reference Iowa. Small Demons will gladly show you books and passages that do so. It will also pull in a list of authors with Iowa connections and their biographies and, for good measure, specific cities in Iowa and the books that reference those.

But places are just the start. If you ask it, Small Demons will compile a list of books in which Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue has made an appearance and learn that Michael Connelly has included it in at least three of his titles.

Thanks to Small Demons, I know that Glocks and Smith & Wessons are often a literary criminal’s weapon of choice, literary vampires drive Volvos, and Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear shows up in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity alongside many other more sophisticated pieces of pop culture. 

I’ve been using the service while it’s still being polished, so there are many features that haven’t been fully built out (such as tracking your personal library), but the foundation of a unique and meaty place for book obsessives is there. It’s free, so I have no idea how Small Demons will eventually make money.

But that’s not a detail I have to obsess about.



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