By Chelsea Haith
“It ripped me apart to love the mad differences all around us and to adore the rant of a sidewalk madman, to listen to everything that is not me,” said one caller to the Call Me Ishmael voicemail service. A well of gratitude rests deep in the caller’s voice. He thanks Call Me Ishmael. He says that without Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ he would never have been able to break through the restrictive traditions of form to find creative expression. He is one of thousands.
Call Me Ishmael founders Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent came up with the idea over beers, which is how all good ideas should be conceptualised. Ishmael is the name of the narrator of Moby Dick and the only surviving crew member. He narrates the story of Moby Dick from a temporal vantage point and, as he is a minor character in the novel, he has come to be representative of social outcasts, much like readers feel they are treated in a world where book sales are declining and reading fiction is secondary to large-scale media consumption.
There is something deeply personal and profoundly vulnerable in making the call to Ishmael. A community is built when readers reach out to one another and bibliophiles all over the world are able to connect, hear one another’s stories and know that they are part of a history of words.
Here Smalley and Kent discuss the site’s origins, the importance of anonymity and the community that’s developed around the project.
Chelsea Haith: What do you think the calls mean to the people who make them?
Smalley & Kent: The calls hold different meanings to different book lovers. A call can be an opportunity to share a funny story, a safe place to tell a secret or a way to connect with other readers.
CH: Have you been surprised by the responses you’ve had from readers?
S&K: Absolutely. It was a pleasant surprise to see how many readers would participate by adding their story to the library, but the range of calls has been overwhelming. I love that the project is a place for bibliophiles who want to gush over their love for John Green, explain why they read poetry out loud to trees, and everything in between.
CH: What was the inspiration for the project?
S&K: At a pub in New York’s West Village neighbourhood, we were discussing books and websites over beers and started riffing on the idea of creating a blog called Call Me Ishmael. We were inspired by the idea that Ishmael could have a cell phone and the project took shape from there.
CH: Some of the calls are very personal, why do you think people are willing to share these kinds of deeply private stories?
S&K: When you call Ishmael, there’s something very familiar about leaving a voicemail. Even though you’re calling a stranger (or really, thousands of strangers who will hear the call!), you feel like you can be yourself and open up in a way that’s very natural. It’s quite the therapeutic experience, you should try it!
CH: What do the calls and contributions mean to you?
S&K: The whole CMI team is really moved by these calls and bibliophiles. Listening to the calls reminds you that you’re part of a great tradition of human storytelling.
CH: What are you planning on doing with the project, where do you see it developing to?
S&K: CMI will always focus on collecting interesting stories about reading – there are still a lot of books we haven’t received any calls about. We’re also hard at work on an experiment to help bibliophiles experience stories about reading in their local bookstores and libraries.
CH: What influence have books had on you?
S&K: The influence is immeasurable. Books made me curious and imaginative as a young reader and more thoughtful and inquisitive as a full-grown bibliophile.
CH: What’s been your favourite voicemail so far?
S&K: It’s impossible to choose just one, but right now I’m really enjoying stories about bibliophiles who reread books and find new meanings in them. This one about Catcher in the Rye is a great example.
CH: How did you get famous bibliophiles like Maria Popova involved?
S&K: We’ve always admired Maria’s work and thoughtfulness and she was one of the first to share the project online when we launched. When we had the idea for All Call Challenges, we knew she’d have a really intriguing contribution.
CH: What do you think the success of a project like this says about our society, our desire for anonymity when sharing the deeply personal, and our connection with books in a world that is so technologically driven?
S&K: I think it’s refreshing that there’s still a place for anonymity online. We have access to all kinds of instantaneous information – which is incredible – but there’s something special about a project that connects you deeply with a stranger, using only his or her voice and a shared love of the power of literature.