An AI-powered app helps readers make sense of classic texts

For a year now, two philosophy professors have been addressing prominent authors and public intellectuals with an unusual, perhaps heretical, proposal. They asked these thinkers if, for a nice fee, they wouldn't mind turning into AI 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, Mr. Kaag's partner in the venture, is a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of 10 books, including “How Not to Kill Yourself,” an unflinching memoir about his mental health problems and 10 suicide attempts. .

The two became friends 14 years ago, when Mr. Kaag was struck by an essay Mr. Martin had written for Harper's and called him. The two bonded over their disenchantment with insular academia and their belief that philosophy could be useful to more people if they would only study it.

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

How they ended up cold calling famous writers is another story.

In April 2023, Mr. Kaag received an email from John Dubuque, a businessman who had become something of a patron.

Before joining his family's plumbing supply business in St. Louis, Mr. Dubuque earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Southern California. Feeling intellectually stagnant, he began paying philosophy professors to guide him through Martin Heidegger's “Being and Time” and other works.

Mr. Dubuque, 40, hired Mr. Kaag for a six-week tutorial on William James's “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” 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, Mr. Dubuque's family business had recently been sold and he was looking for what to do next. During his discussions with Mr. Kaag, he suggested working together to create a publishing house.

As Dubuque envisioned it, the imprint would pair a world-class expert with a classic work and use ChatGPT-like technology to replicate dialogue between a student and a teacher. In theory, readers could ask, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin about presidential speeches or delve into Buddhist texts with Deepak Chopra.

Mr. Kaag joined the project and brought his friend Martin to the project. The result is Rebind Publishing.

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

Mr. Kaag and Mr. 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 answer every possible question a lay reader might have. The recorded interviews were then entered into the AI ​​software.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Kaag and Mr. Martin met for an interview at the Boston Athenaeum, one of the nation's oldest libraries. Mr. Martin was wearing jeans and a rumpled sweater over a T-shirt; his gray-brown hair was disheveled, giving him the look of a senior member of an indie rock band. In contrast, Mr. Kaag wore a dress shirt, tan chinos and brown dress shoes with turquoise socks.

Both seemed incapable of believing how lucky they were to have had carte blanche to put together an intellectual dream team.

“Man, this thing could be awesome,” Mr. Martin said, recalling his reaction when Mr. Kaag approached him with the idea. “Then we started brainstorming.” He said Mr. Kaag suggested, “Imagine if we could get Laura Kipnis in 'Romeo and Juliet.'” (Eventually they hired 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 (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), Bill McKibben (selected by John Muir), Margaret Atwood (“A Tale of Two Cities ”) and biblical scholar and Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels (selections from the New Testament and the Secret Gospels).

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

“I read 'Dubliners' for the first time when I was 12 or 13,” Mr. Banville said by phone. “I was absolutely fascinated by it. It wasn't a Wild West story or an Agatha Christie story. It was the real thing, it was about life itself.

There is a feeling in literary circles that artificial intelligence is in opposition to art and the humanities. After all, this is the technology that some believe could eliminate writers and teachers.

Authors who worked with Rebind allowed their voices to be cloned and agreed to let their words be manipulated by artificial intelligence

Asked if he had any reservations about it, Banville said: “My initial reaction was deep suspicion, obviously. You read a book in your hand and you read it line by line, page by page. But this is a wonderful way to get people to read classic books and not be afraid of them.”

“I got paid well for it,” he added, declining to reveal the amount. “But you know, it wasn't the money. I was interested in this project. At my age I'm taking part in something new.” (Rebind commenters will also receive a royalty.)

Ms. Gay said she had little interest in the technology that made Rebind possible. “I have a strange kind of understanding block with artificial intelligence,” she said. “The moment someone says 'AI,' I'm done.”

However, he said: “What I thought was interesting was the revisiting of classic texts. And anything that gets people to read is generally wonderful.

Martin and Kaag are optimistic about the creative potential of artificial intelligence, considering those who avoid it short-sighted. “Collaborating with this medium is one of the greatest artistic opportunities of our time,” said Martin. They hope to give the Rebind treatment to 100 classics, all published before 1928 and therefore in the public domain.

Mr. Kaag and Mr. Martin personally devoted themselves to the canonical works: Henry David Thoreau's “Walden” in Mr. Kaag's case, and Nietzsche's “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” for Mr. Martin.

Mr. Martin met the 19th-century German philosopher when he was a high school student in Calgary, Canada, after being told about it by his English teacher. “He changed my life,” he said.

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, Mr. Kaag had a similar experience after his older brother left “Walden” over the toilet tank. He said he was reading the book to his Latin teacher, who later took him to Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts.

“I swam in the lake,” Mr. Kaag recalled. “I said to myself, 'I'm going to be a philosophy professor, teach “Walden,” and live in Concord.' Today I live 10 minutes from here.”

Making this kind of experience with a widely accessible book is the driving idea behind Rebind, said Dubuque, who has set aside his own money to fund the project, though he declined to say how much.

“I'm drawn to classics and older books because they're a different kind of escape than watching Netflix,” he said. “There's this refreshing experience of stepping out of your time. These books give a lot of meaning to your life too.”

Kaag compared the authors' AI-based comments to the marginalia scribbled in a book by an expert reader, before citing a more pop-cultural reference.

“We also thought of it as those Hogwarts papers that talk back to you,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *