It was a long flight, and one woman had brought Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese to occupy herself. When she got to the book’s saddest passage, she started sobbing. "I mean complete, shameless, snot flowing down my face sobbing," she says. That’s when another woman sitting across the aisle from her handed her a tissue she had been holding in anticipation of this moment. "I read that book a few weeks ago, and I knew you were getting close," she said.
This is one of many anonymous stories about books that has been told to Ishmael, of the site Call Me Ishmael, since it launched in June. The premise is simple: Anyone can call the site's phone number and answer the prompt, "Leave a voicemail about a book you love and a story you’ve lived."
Ishmael, who is voiced by TED-Ed director Logan Smalley, turns one of those voicemails each week into a video by sticking his iPhone to his typewriter with silly putty and running a transcription of the message through the roller to the speed of the audio.
From a single prompt, the site has unleashed a wide range of stories. There’s the father who can’t get the rhythm of Pajama Time by Sandra Boynton out of his head "until all of us, even the kid, had to take a break." A 60-year-old man, educated in a segregated school, whose view of civil rights was shaped by Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. Another father begins to see his son’s autism differently after reading Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. Ishmael has received stories about depression, cancer, and nuanced versions of joy. Many callers actually address their stories directly to the narrator himself: "Hey Ishmael," "Thank you, Ishmael," "Thanks, Ish," "Later Ishmael."
Smalley, along with his collaborators Stephanie Kent and Sam Johnson, conceived of the project after a casual conversation in a pub turned to the first line of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael." What if you really could call Ishmael? What would you say?
"His characterization, by the people who study Herman Melville, is as a fortuitous witness, and he is described as insatiably curious," Smalley says. "It’s kind of neat that this site stays true to that in some ways in that, from a characterization standpoint, Ishmael is still just collecting stories, and sharing them. He just happens to use a voice mailbox instead of a harpoon or a book or however."
The site has thus far spread mostly through word of mouth, but some of its momentum has come through some very influential mouths. Reading Rainbow directed its Kickstarter backers to the site, and when John Green, a well-known vlogger and author of The Fault in Our Stars, mentioned the project on Facebook, Smalley says Ishmael received 300 phone calls in three hours. Though "Ishmael" only makes one call into a video each day, he posts the rest of them in a searchable archive.
Smalley hopes the site will become a place people turn to find their next book. "It’s an outlet for expressing the intimate connection that one feels with the book," he says. "And it’s far better at doing that than what a book review can do."
Call Me Ishmael generates a small amount of revenue from referral links to Amazon and IndieBound that are posted with each story, and the site is toying with the idea of collaborating with other organizations on "a prompt of the month." But it’s still a side project for now, and, Smalley says, equally satisfying that way.
"I like to think about someone picking up a book based on what they saw on the site and thinking of that anonymous caller," Smalley says. "I think it’s a cool new lens of interpretation to reading."