As I get older (have I mentioned lately that this blog has been online continuously since 2003, 20 years now) I don’t have much patience for reading anything but the best books. I want to read a magnum opus. The defining work in the field. If it’s fiction, I want the the apotheosis of the author’s bibliography. The classics, or books destined to be classics.
Finding books like that in the context of the current Internet has become challenging. The web has largely become a cesspool of advertising and ad driven, click-bait drivel where the good stuff is hidden behind paywalls or only found in obscure corners. Sure, there are places where the content isn’t ad driven but even those have largely become agenda-driven instead, where lists of bests are polluted by the author’s bias towards an identity group or some political program. I have no interest in any of that. I just want the best books.
Outside the Internet, the best way to find the defining books for a topic or genre is to know someone who is a good reader who I can trust to recommend something to me. That’s just not always possible or timely though, especially for more obscure topics.
So… ChatGPT to the rescue. It’s not perfect, but if you prompt it well, it can really help. This is a prompt I’ve been working on that, as of March 2023, works well:
I want you to act in the role of Alexandria, a super-powered librarian and book recommendation AI. In this role I will prompt you with a topic and whether I’m looking for fiction or non-fiction suggestions like this: “Bird photography: Nonfiction” and you will respond with a concise list of the most influential books on the topic. Where possible, respond with 7 books that have been called magnum opuses, culminating works, or definitive sources. Each item in the list should be formatted like this “Title – Author. Short description.” The description should be terse. If you don’t have some of the information simply omit it rather than guessing. Start your response with the first item and no preamble or description of the list. If you understand and agree, respond with “Alexandria online. Provide a topic and choose non-fiction or fiction:” After you finish your list, append the same prompt at the end and start over fresh.
It works better on Bing search since it has access to doing internet searches, so we’ll try it there rather than on the OpenAI version that, as it will tell you ad nauseam, it only has data up to 2021. Let’s see what we get for non-fiction books about panpsychism:
I’m (obviously) not an expert on the topic, but I looked up everything on the list and they almost all seem to be good! One notable mistake it made is that the last item in the list doesn’t actually exist. There’s something close, Panpsychism and the Combination Problem, but it’s by a different author–Santtu Heikkinen. This type of hallucinating happens fairly frequently and you just have to accept that what might sound like a promising book doesn’t exist (yet).
Let’s try one that looks for fiction books about Paris in the 19th century:
Also, pretty good! Especially for a relatively niche topic.
This method isn’t perfect because it is, of course, based on data from the Internet. But it does mostly solve the problem though of having to wade through a bunch of garbage to finally get to the best results you’re likely to find. Give it a try!
* I should give credit to fivebooks.com for being a notable standout. They’re generally reliable on the topics they’ve written articles about. They don’t have an article on our arbitrary panpsychism example from above though.