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Datamining our favorite lit

Posted by Joshua Glenn  October 3, 2012 03:59 PM

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Seven years ago, I wrote an installment of my “Examined Life” IDEAS column on the topic of fictional footwear. I’d read in Details magazine that a Paris-based couture cobbler had named some handmade oxfords after Lord Henry Wotton, from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This made sense to me... except for the fact that Wilde describes Wotton as wearing patent leather boots, not oxfords. I thought it would be amusing to write an item on literary footwear, so I went down the rabbit hole, for hours — via Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature, mostly — hunting for keywords like “shoe,” “oxford,” and “boot.” Today, I can do the same sort of search in minutes, thanks to a website — Small Demons — a fledgling site that "collects and catalogs thousands of references to music, movies, people and objects mentioned inside of books."

I recently noticed that Richard Nash, who runs content and community for Small Demons, is going to be in Boston this month for a NISO forum — Oct. 18-19, at 101 Federal Street — on the topic of "The E-Book Renaissance, Part II: Challenges and Opportunities."

NISO is the National Information Standards Organization, which sets information industry standards that make it possible for content publishers, libraries, and software developers to work together. What on earth does the National Information Standards Organization, I asked Nash via email, have to do with books? He replied: "Inside every story, there is data dying to get out."

Nash explained: "Data could be the city a character visits, the drink she drinks, the song he listens to, the falafel she eats, the stadium she visits, the athlete she watches, the superhero or activist he admires. That is the data we're interested in at Small Demons, and I'm talking to the National Information Standards Organization about how we can use this data to help connect stories, to browse from, say, [the movie based on Nick Hornby's novel] High Fidelity to [Prince's song] "Little Red Corvette" to [Haruki Murakami's novel] Kafka on the Shore to Vienna."

So if two books both feature Casablanca, say, and you like one, you might like the other? I asked. "Well, we're not a place that says, If you like or bought X then you should like Y," Nash cautioned. "We don't tell people what to read; instead we offer a vast map of books and all the culturally significant details that connect them. The Storyverse, we call it. And we let people navigate it themselves, creating a stimulating journey, saving mementos on their Storyboard, sharing them with others."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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