Calling Ishmael

by
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
12.15.15

A phone rings, but it’s not the one in your pocket; you realize the sound is coming from an old-school rotary pay phone in a corner of your favorite bookstore. You look around. It’s just you and this softly ringing relic of a bygone era. You pick up the phone. “Hello?” you say. “Ishmael, what’s going on, man?” a smooth-talking stranger says on the other end. “I just wanted to tell you a little bit about my experience with The Catcher in the Rye.”

Welcome to Call Me Ishmael, perhaps the most celebrated opening sentence in literary history and now an innovative and irresistible new tool for discovering books and sharing stories about them. The project began in 2014, when founders Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent were exchanging favorite opening lines of books in a bar in New York City’s West Village. One of them wondered aloud, “What if Ishmael had a phone number? What if you actually could call him?” In an instant, the idea for Call Me Ishmael was born: a phone number, an answering machine, a website, and an invitation to “readers around the world to tell us stories about the books they love.”

The process is simple: If a reader has a story to tell about a particular book—how it was a source of inspiration, maybe, or how it was life changing—that reader can call Ishmael at (774) 325-0503 and leave the story as an anonymous voice mail. Those who just want to listen can visit the website (callmeishmael.com) and hear more than a thousand stories about books of all types: literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, poetry, nonfiction, and everything in between. Smalley and Kent select their favorite stories and share a few each week on the website and via social media. When the pair discover a particularly wonderful story, they transcribe it on a typewriter (yes, a real manual typewriter) and share it as a video.

But they’re not stopping there. Now, in the form of a rotary-style pay phone produced this winter, Call Me Ishmael will soon be found in bookstores, libraries, schools, coffee shops, and even homes around the world. A small placard on the phone provides a directory of books. Dial the number for, say, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Mary Oliver’s Thirst, and moments later a caller is listening to a stranger’s journey with Kerouac or, in one of Smalley and Kent’s favorite calls, a woman’s recollection of serenading trees with Oliver’s verse in a Nashville park.

To fund the project, Smalley and Kent, who both have day jobs—Smalley is the director of TED Education and Kent works in community and marketing at Astrohaus—conducted a Kickstarter campaign in early November 2015. The campaign exceeded its ten-thousand-dollar goal in the first two days, and the project’s first phones will be produced early this year, including one that will be installed in Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. The phone is portable, requires minimal space, and can be plugged in or powered by a rechargeable battery. It can be purchased outright (the cost is still being determined) or rented for events such as festivals or readings. Owners can also track the number of listens for each story on an app that manages the phone.

Owners of Call Me Ishmael phones can also use the app to assign any voice mail in Ishmael’s library (or stories that the phone owner uploads) to any button on the phone. “A bookstore might want to make all buttons correlate to stories about a visiting or local author, or a librarian might want to feature stories sourced from a fifth-grade class,” says Smalley. “It’s just a simple and, hopefully, delightful way to discover and celebrate books.” The phone’s app even has a “mysterious button”—when an owner presses the button on the app, the physical phone will start ringing. When someone answers, a message will play.

The response to Call Me Ishmael so far has been positive—not least, the founders believe, because it taps into why people so deeply love books. More than two thousand readers have called in and left messages, and the recordings have been played over a million times. “Ishmael is a really unique way to talk about books and to get people talking about books,” says Smalley. “It isn’t a review of books, it’s a way for people—writers, readers, teachers, anyone—to share stories about the stories that have touched them.” Kent agrees: “Books affect us in profound ways. Ishmael provides readers a way to share that experience, and it’s fascinating the range of people who call and the books they tell us about. Sometimes people call and instantly start crying. More often than not, they share intimate stories from their own lives.”

In one message, about Shirley Conran’s book Lace, a woman says, “I was adopted at birth. And at the time when I read this book, I wanted desperately to find my birth mother. And I found her.” In another, a man talks about his experience with Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. “I was born about five months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate by definition is not equal,” the caller says. “My Sunday school teacher told us that God wanted us to be separate.” Another: “I feel like I grew up with Harry Potter, as crazy as that sounds.”  

Ishmael also gets his fair share of prank calls (one caller asked Ishmael to pick up toilet paper for him, another declared her love for him). “The calls are just absolutely hilarious,” Kent says. “We compiled them for April Fools’ Day this year. It’s quite a treasure to wake up every day and hear what people have to say.”

Call Me Ishmael has also bridged the gap between readers and authors. Last March Cheryl Strayed posted a response to a Call Me Ishmael voice mail about her book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, on her Facebook page, saying that the message made her day. John Green tweeted “I’m in tears” in response to a compilation video of readers who called Ishmael to share their experiences with Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. This is precisely why Call Me Ishmael was designed, Kent says: “to build community via narrative and to share books. Strayed and Green are just two examples of how it can do this. We’re super excited to see where all of this goes.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a poet, an editor, and a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a poetry collection, Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is andrewmk.com.