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Bibliophile’s corner: Now read the classics with AI-powered expert guides

The two became friends 14 years ago, when Kaag was struck by an essay Martin had written for Harper’s and called him up.

Bibliophile’s corner: Now read the classics with AI-powered expert guides
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For the past year, two philosophy professors have been calling around to prominent authors and public intellectuals with an unusual, perhaps heretical, proposal. They have been asking these thinkers if, for a handsome fee, they wouldn’t mind turning themselves into A.I. chatbots.

John Kaag, one of the academics, is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is known for writing books, such as “Hiking With Nietzsche” and “American Philosophy: A Love Story,” that blend philosophy and memoir.

Clancy Martin, Kaag’s partner in the endeavour, is a professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and the author of 10 books, including “How Not to Kill Yourself,” an unflinching memoir about his mental health struggles and 10 suicide attempts.

The two became friends 14 years ago, when Kaag was struck by an essay Martin had written for Harper’s and called him up. The two bonded over their disenchantment with the siloed world of academia and their belief that philosophy can be helpful to more people, if only they studied it.

Over time, Kaag, 44, and Martin, 57, also bonded over their personal struggles. Each has been married three times, and each has faced death. (In 2020, Kaag suffered full-blown cardiac arrest after a gym workout.)

How they wound up cold-calling renowned writers is another story. In April 2023, Kaag received an email from John Dubuque, a businessman who had become a patron of sorts. Before joining his family’s plumbing-supply business in St. Louis, Dubuque had been a philosophy major at the University of Southern California. Feeling that he was stagnating intellectually, he began paying philosophy professors to take him through “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger and other works.

Dubuque, 40, hired Kaag for a six-week tutorial on “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James. The professor was the right person for the job, having published “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life” in 2020. At the time, Dubuque’s family business had recently been sold, and he was looking for what to do next. During his talks with Kaag, he suggested that they team up to create a publishing company.

As Dubuque envisioned it, the imprint would pair a world-class expert with a classic work and use technology similar to ChatGPT to replicate the dialogue between a student and teacher. In theory, readers could ask, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin about presidential speeches or delve into Buddhist texts with Deepak Chopra. Kaag jumped on board and brought his friend Martin to the project. The result is Rebind Publishing.

It will makes its debut June 17 as an interactive reading experience, available on mobile, desktop and tablet. Users will have free access during the rollout, with per-book pricing and a subscription model to follow later this year.

Kaag and Martin selected the authors who would offer commentary. They spent up to 20 hours interviewing each of these “Rebinders,” as they call them, about their chosen texts, trying to cover every possible question a lay reader might have. The recorded interviews were then fed into A.I.

software.

“Man, this thing could be super cool,” Martin said, recalling his reaction when Kaag approached him with the idea. “Then we started brainstorming.” He said Kaag suggested, “Imagine if we could get Laura Kipnis on ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” (They ended up hiring Ms. Kipnis, a cultural critic and essayist, to do just that.) Other writers participating in Rebind include Roxane Gay (“The Age of Innocence”), Marlon James (“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), Bill McKibben (selections from John Muir), Margaret Atwood (“A Tale of Two Cities”) and the biblical scholar and Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels (selections from the New Testament and Secret Gospels).

For “Dubliners,” the James Joyce classic, Kaag and Martin flew to Dublin to interview the Irish novelist John Banville, who delivered video and audio commentary.

NYT Editorial Board
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