“What if Ishmael had a cellphone?” Yes, that Ishmael — the one from Moby Dick. It was a question that lit-lover Logan Smalley and a few of his colleagues came across while discussing (okay, tipsy discussing) their favorite novels at a divvy Greenwich Village pub one night.
That’s the origin story Smalley tells in an interview with Paste when explaining how he spun the iconic opening line of Moby Dick into an ingenious online storytelling project, the blueprints for which he squiggled on a bar napkin. Called “Call Me Ishmael,” the project gives the great fictional seafaring storyteller Ishmael a literal voicemail box allowing book-lovers to call and share a story about a title they love. Transcribed, catalogued, and shared online, these anonymous voicemails make for a new, creative way for readers to recommend and discover new literary works, like an innovative, intimate book review.
When users call the number, they hear a voicemail narrated by Smalley as Ishmael — there are a few different recordings — and are then left to chat for approximately two minutes about a book that has impacted their lives. Each night Smalley listens to the day’s collection and chooses one story to transcribe. While transcribing, he video records the process with an iPhone attached to the frame of his old school typewriter, creating a clip to pair with the audio and upload to the site.
“I have laughed, cried, called my mom, slapped my forehead, considered calling the police, slow clapped, screamed with joy and dropped the phone on more than one occasion,” Smalley told Paste. “I can say with confidence that Ishmael’s library, when viewed as a whole, is the most amazing story I have ever heard.”
Ranging from heartfelt to hilarious and often quirky, these voicemails about powerful, affecting stories become stories of their own. Books featured in the audio stories include Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment, White Oleander, Matilda, and Dr. Seuss' The Sneeches, among others; some classic, some unexpected. As expected — and intended — it’s a great place to browse for the next title for your TBR stack. Here are a few I loved while combing through the archives:
1. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE BY MITCH ALBOM
A young girl shares a story about reading Tuesdays with Morrie to her father on a long roadtrips and improving their relationship in the process. “I felt like that was the start of when we began talking a lot more," she says in the message. "I feel like that’s what the book was trying to accomplish in the first place. Bringing me closer to another human being.”
2. MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS BY GERALD DURRELL
A British veterenarian-in-training talks about how this colorful children's book set in Corfu inspired him to pursue a career surrounded by animals. "... I was about 12 or 13. With every page I read, I was living my childhood vicariously through Durrell," he says.
3. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BY JANE AUSTEN
While reading Pride and Prejudice at a local library, this reader was approached by an intrigued elderly man, impressed by her literary tastes. "He just started to go off, telling me how no one, no young people, take and appreciate books with quality, books with meaning anymore," she says. Then he told her a story about how he met his wife when she was carrying that very book. "He told me a beautiful love story, then he just got up and left. I just thought that should be shared."
4. THIRST: POEMS BY MARY OLIVER
A girl confesses that the natrualist poems in Thirst inspired a quirky nature outing with a friend. "I actually read poetry to trees," she says.
5. TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD BY HARPER LEE
A Lee enthusiast and late 20-something English teacher tells of when she first picked up this book at a Scholastic Book Fair in elementary school and proceeds to passionately defend Harper Lee's status as a literary great. “What Harper Lee gave us in this novel cannot and should not be discounted. And when people try to fault her on being a one hit literary wonder I’d say, ‘Yea, but what a hit’” she says in her message. “I love many books and many characters but To Kill a Mockingbird is my great literary love.”
6. MY LOUISIANA SKY BY KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT
The caller tells how this book about a young girl coming-of-age in the South inspired her love of reading and initiated her happy bookworm stage when she was a young girl undergoing the awkwardness of puberty herself. "I had never been entranced by a book before and after that it was like an addiction," she professes. "Forget boys and all those awkward other things that are supposed to happen to you at that age. I was in the library reading 20 books a week. It was an awesome feeling."
After listening to these charming stories, and serveral others, I was inspired to give Ishmael a call myself. After listening to the greeting ("Hi, I'm Ishmael") and a voice message that enoucraged me to share a book I love and a story I've lived ("it can be funny, sad, profound, thoughtful, reflective..."), I proceeded to share my anecdote about reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which is still to this day one of my favorite novels. One night when I was up late reading, my loud, unabashed sobbing and nose-blowing woke up my little brother who was sleeping down the hall. He knocked on my door and entered, genuinely concerned. My eyes were so swollen, he thought my boyfriend had broken up with me or some other epic teenage tragedy had occured and adorably, he handed me the wad of toilet paper he'd brought in as a peace offering. I explained that I’d only been reading a very
sad sad scene in a book, but I took the wad all the same and dried my bleary eyes. He proceeded to take the book from me and demanded that I not read things that make me so sad every again.
I love retelling that story every time I recommend the
book to someone. It comes along with a cautious note advising my fellow readers to ensure they're not reading in a public space when they get to chapters 6 and 7, and especially when they approach the final chapters. And while I’m still too chicken to get a literary
tattoo like all the cool kids are doing, I plan for “For you, a thousand times over” to
be my first inking as soon as I work up the courage.
Now I think I'll go reread that amazing book. Thanks for the talk, Ish.