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Call Me Ishmael: The Phenomenon Revolutionizing How We Talk About Books

July 28, 2014  |  5:59pm
Call Me Ishmael: The Phenomenon Revolutionizing How We Talk About Books

“Call me Ishmael.”

It’s one of the most recognizable opening sentences in literature (right up there with “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). And now, the iconic phrase has gained a new life as a multimedia phenomenon.

Call Me Ishmael celebrates the power of literature by giving a person the chance to literally “call Ishmael” and share a story about how a book impacted their life. Many calls are then transcribed and posted on callmeishmael.com, becoming tales that go far beyond traditional book reviews. Titles featured range from The Time Traveler’s Wife to Pajama Time, from Maus to The Catcher in the Rye.


A Call Me Ishmael message about Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

The stories people share are funny, sad, poignant and deeply human, which creator Logan Smalley says is the point. He calls the resulting narrative “an enhanced, evolved and beautiful picture of humanity.”

Originally from Athens, Georgia, Smalley now lives and works in New York City. By day, he directs the TED-Ed initiative, an educational spin-off of the TED Conferences that produces video lessons. By night, he works on Call Me Ishmael.

“On the surface, the projects that I’ve worked on for the last decade … appear unrelated,” Smalley wrote in an email to Paste. “However, to me they each revolve around an art form that I would happily study and pursue for the rest of my life: storytelling.”

The idea for Call Me Ishmael came to him during a get-together in a Greenwich Village pub. The crew was chatting about books, when Smalley had one of those random party thoughts: “Call me Ishmael. Hmm … what if Ishmael had a cell phone?”

Within minutes, Smalley had written down project plan for the Call Me Ishmael website on a bar napkin. Within six months, he launched the website.

“I’m slowly learning that the projects that fit on a single bar napkin are usually the ones worth pursuing,” he says.

Smalley recruited the help of his friend Sam Johnson, who took the reins on audio editing and website management. The pair, who have been friends since their high school days, previously worked together on Darius Goes West. The documentary follows Darius Weems, a teenager afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, as he travels to California to convince MTV to “pimp his ride” (in this case, the ride was a wheelchair).

“Sam and I shared a bunk bed on an RV for four years as we traveled over 300,000+ miles by road to attend DGW screenings around the country,” Smalley says. “It is so not a big deal for us to share a voicemail inbox!”

The pair quietly launched Call Me Ishmael, without a traditional marketing or PR plan. They e-mailed the link to a few good friends, knowing that the real book-lovers would find their way to the website (“Introverts secretly run the world,” Smalley explains).

And they did. The site’s audience has been steadily increasing since its launch in early June, but the biggest boost came when John Green posted a link to the site on his Facebook page, calling it “wonderful” and encouraging his Nerdfighters to check it out.

That day, the site got an average of 400 voicemails an hour.

Call Me Ishmael gets at least 25 voicemails on slow days, so Smalley relies on his readership to help sift through the heaps of material. He uploads a number of messages to a section of the site called Galley Calls, where readers can listen to and rate the messages, helping Smalley decide what to feature.

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When he sits down to transcribe a story every evening, Smalley drags out his trusty typewriter, attaches his iPhone to the frame with silly putty and tape and then hits record as he transcribes the message. From there, he simply exports the video, syncs it with the audio from the voicemail and uploads the finished product to the site. This daily ritual reminds Smalley what the project is all about.

“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 says. “I can say with confidence that Ishmael’s library, when viewed as a whole, is the most amazing story I have ever heard.”

So what book would Smalley pick if he called Ishmael?

“Moby Dick,” he says. “I’m re-reading it now. I love it. And it’s killing me.”

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