Speaking from Frankfurt, where he had just launched the start-up Small Demons at a conference called Tools of Change, Valla Vakili was trying to remember the exact wording of a quotation by Jorge Luis Borges. It was from the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," first published just over sixty years ago: "The history of the universe, which contains the history of our lives and the most tenuous details of them, is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a demon."
"I read that as meaning, 'The history of the universe is all of the stories that have been told," Vakili says. Minor gods construct the words, and the demon is "the thing that drives you to create, and also the thing that connects the writer to the reader." With that in mind, he settled on "Small Demons" as a suitable name for his company, which he hopes will serve as a "discovery platform" for readers to connect with the people, places, and things that are written into stories.
The beta launch of the site has a database of a couple hundred books. With about $2.25 million in funding and eleven full-time employees, the company scours each novel--Vakili says they'll focus on fiction and narrative non-fiction--for proper names and other significant items (whiskey, for example, holds an important place in the whodunit canon). Each object fits into a network of literary references, available for free on the Small Demons site (and possibly for a fee in future apps). At the top of the homepage, you can access major categories: Books, People, Places, Things--the last being perhaps the niftiest if you're the breed of nerd interested in which items get the most literary attention (within this finite database of books, at least). The top three are: Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, and The New York Times. Vaikili says they are still figuring out which allusions to keep track of, but that user contributions will continue to grow the site's catalogue.