Everything was creaky and it was just so crowded with books
December 9, 2017 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Call Me Ishmael, a "novel way to celebrate books and life." The Call Me Ishmael project is simple: Leave a voicemail at (774) 325-0503 about a book you loved and a story you have lived. Your voicemail will be transcribed, typewritten, and posted on the site for other readers to enjoy your story and your book. The project has expanded to include rotary phones in bookstores for patrons to listen to selected voicemails.

The 2016 Webby honoree project by Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent has received thousands of calls from readers wanting to share stories. Previously.

National Endowment for the Arts:

It started as so many good things do: over a drink. Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent were at a bar one evening in New York when the conversation turned to books, and specifically, to first sentences of novels. In any such conversation, three words in particular are invariably mentioned: “Call me Ishmael,” the iconic opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What came next was a question that in hindsight, seems unthinkable no one had ever asked before: What if you really could call Ishmael? “We quickly realized that it was a pun worth keeping,” Smalley said.

Smalley and Kent set to work creating Call Me Ishmael, a platform for people to tell personal stories about books they love, with the hopes of connecting people with their next great read. They set up a cell phone number for Ishmael, which goes straight to voice mail and prompts people to anonymously leave a message about “a book you’ve loved and a story you’ve lived.” A few times a week, Smalley transcribes a message by typewriter, filming the text as it scrolls up the typewriter carriage in time to the audio.

Poets & Writers:

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.”
posted by hexaflexagon (9 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I did one of these.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:46 PM on December 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

🎵I just met you/and this is crazy/but here's my whaleboat/so call me Ishmael 🎵
posted by asterix at 3:49 PM on December 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

Imagine hearing the entire story from some old lunatic, who says his name is Ishmael, in a bar. You'd be trapped until sunrise, buying him more drinks, trying to find out what happened to goddamn Captain Ahab, as he lectures for forty minutes about how to clean up a whaling ship after you butcher a whale.
posted by thelonius at 4:05 PM on December 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

goddamn Captain Ahab, as he lectures for forty minutes about how to clean up a whaling ship after you butcher a whale.

I just realized I’d probably be really interested in that. I should read Moby Dick.

I love the idea of sharing stories about books, but rotary phones and transcriptions on typewriters feels a little... affected? Sometimes it’s frustrating for me when books are associated with quaint, old-fashioned stuff, as if they’re almost relics themselves.

But I think it’s also just embarrassing for me because I’m the kind of person who likes rotary phones and wants a typewriter. I like old machines, sure, but if be lying if I said there was no element of nostalgia or romanticizing the past. This sort of thing makes that feel twee and unoriginal, like my interest in this stuff isn’t as unique as I would like to imagine (“no no, I want a typewriter for practical reasons, not because they’re trendy”).

And so then my love of books is associated with this other twee stuff, and then I have to wonder how much of it is me, and how much is just an affectation on my part. I like books at least in part because I want to like books. Something like this comes along and I can’t help but feel like it’s all just rotary phones and typewriters.

On the other hand, people are calling to express their love of books they’ve read, and it would be unfair to call that an affectation. They’re not talking about book smell, or cloth binding, they’re taking about how the contents of the books affected them. But all the trappings around book love, typewriters and cozy nooks, sometimes make me a little embarrassed. I know that’s my problem, but I sometimes I can’t shake it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 4:52 PM on December 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I should read Moby Dick.

You should. Whatever you are expecting, Moby Dick is something different.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:18 PM on December 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

Sometimes it’s frustrating for me when books are associated with quaint, old-fashioned stuff, as if they’re almost relics themselves.
I totally get that, but I always find myself irresistibly drawn to anything that depicts books as heavy, dusty things with crackly pages to leaf through, bursting with forgotten insights written in unnecessarily florid language. That's why I end up liking really flawed works like The Historian by Kostova or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Clarke, because books are portrayed as magical, sensuous things. It's a bit funny, then, that I'm in the process of slowly eliminating most of my physical books and reading almost everything by the dim glow of a screen.

Anyway. This is a wonderful project and I really appreciate this post. Thank you, hexaflexagon, for sharing it.
posted by xyzzy at 5:44 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

pxe2000, I just listened to yours...it's very moving. Thank you for sharing that here.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:51 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Siri still mentions me as "Ishmael" ever since I said "call me Ishmael" to it 2 years ago. Haven't seen the need to change it back.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:31 PM on December 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Whatever you are expecting, Moby Dick is something different.

One thing a lot of people miss is that a ton of it is humorous, parodic, or satiric. Trying to read it as if the voice is entirely serious is deadly and weird. He's messing with you.

This is an interesting and beautifully executed project. What's odd about it to me is that it feels sort of 2006-era web, like Post-Secret ish. But hey, again, anything to share book love.
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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