THERE IS NO ENTRY FOR ROBODOSING (getting high on cough syrup) in Webster's. Forget about finding indie rocker Liz Phair in Who's Who. Good luck looking up toad licking (a semi-apocryphal drug fad) at the local library.

Fortunately the generationally challenged can locate these terms specific to the '90s Zeitgeist, along with hundreds more, in a handy new reference book, alt.culture. Designed for anyone who thinks Nine Inch Nails can be found at the local True Value, alt.culture is a get-hip-quick manual created by Steven Daly, 35, and Nathaniel Wice, 28, two daylight-deprived redheads fluent in current music, movie, social and technological trends generally referred to as alternative—from Aeon Flux, the cyberpunk cartoon, to Zima, the clear malt beverage.

"It's kind of a mainstream treatment of the nonmainstream," says Daly, who hooked up with Wice five years ago when the two worked as editors for Spin magazine. (Daly was fired for recurring differences with the editor-in-chief, Bob Guccione Jr. Wice left amicably.) The duo spent two years in a cramped New York City office poring through pop-culture magazines, surfing the Internet and fashioning their 300-page synthesis of the current decade. "We realized after a couple of months that we couldn't just hammer it out," says Daly. "It was, like, 'Oh, God, this is serious. We can't just cruise on attitude.' "

Of that they each had their share. Raised in Philadelphia, Wice, the Harvard-educated son of "decidedly NPR [National Public Radio] parents" (a lawyer father and a schoolteacher mother), grew up "listening to Led Zeppelin and reading The Nation." The Scottish-born Daly, whose father was a telephone operator and mother a secretary, was a teenage rocker with the marginally successful Glasgow new-wave band Orange Juice before casting his lot as a magazine writer. They considered themselves hip—yet evaluating every Tom, Dick and Kato to have caused a ripple in the public consciousness proved trickier than either had imagined. "At a certain point the metaphor for the book was that we were taking a big class picture," says Wice. "The question was how to arrange everyone."

The boys found room for Kaelin ("aspiring actor and professional freeloader") and Keanu Reeves ("actor-hunk variously regarded as idiot or savant"), but not for Bill Clinton ("First Adolescent" Chelsea seemed more integral to the book's concept). "We wrangled over some of the entries," says Daly. Occasionally they also confused their HarperCollins editors, who weren't sure that essays on, say, "the connection between Mortal Kombat and gangsta rap," says Wice, belonged in what the publisher envisioned as a book of lists. "We looked at it as culture criticism," says Daly. "When they would say 'trivia,' we would say 'significa.' " (The essays stayed.)

Another concern was ensuring that their almanac of pop-culture ephemera was accessible to anyone. "One of the guidelines we had in writing this," says Wice, "was that my mother had to understand the entries." Shrewdly, Daly and Wice retained the rights to the cyberspace incarnation of their creation (http://www.altculture.com), an endlessly browsable Web site that has already been visited by thousands.

Though they're itching to get started on alt.europe ("European culture is far weirder than American," says Daly), the authors aren't sure they want to become Funk & Wagnall's for hipsters. "The nightmare scenario of turning these books into a series," says Wice, "would be the alt.culture Guide to Cooking." Courtney Love's gazpacho tips could be a little scary.

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

  • Contributors:
  • Anthony Duignan-Cabrera.