National Book Foundation: What inspired Call Me Ishmael?
Logan Smalley: I’ve been obsessed with the opening lines of books for as long as I can remember, and of course “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most notable opening lines in literature. One day, I was sitting around with my co-founder, Stephanie Kent, and we realized the sentence contained a pun. So we asked the question, what if we gave Ishmael a phone number? What would people call him about? The natural answer was “stories about books that they loved.”
NBF: Is that your favorite opening line, or is that just a convenient one?
LS: It’s really hard to pick a favorite opening line. I think it’s agreed-upon that “Call Me Ishmael” and maybe two or three others are the most famous opening lines. And it’s certainly one that makes the most sense to give a telephone number to!
NBF: That would change the entire novel, if Melville’s character had cell phones.
LS: Haha! It’s kind of neat on a poetic level because, of course, Ishmael as a narrator only references himself two or three times throughout the book. If you think about what Moby-Dick is, it’s his observation of the story and his account of listening to his fellow sailors’ stories.
We like to think that we’re continuing the tradition of listening to great stories. There’s a Melville scholar who describes Ishmael as the ‘fortuitous witness.’ So we try and stay loyal to that characterization in everything that we do with Call Me Ishmael, and we certainly feel fortunate to be listening to all the stories that we receive.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Logan Smalley” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]If it’s a good book, then at the end of it, your life looks a little different.[/pullquote]
NBF: Are there ways in which the voicemails have surprised you?
LS: Oh, absolutely. One more thing on that previous note: the voicemails generally are anonymous and it’s kind of neat because, in a way, Ishmael is kind of an anonymous character, too. You never learn his last name or much else about him.
But anyway, I check Ishmael’s voice mailbox every morning and every night. It’s always full of surprises. Some stories make us laugh, some make us cry, some make us consider calling the police. [laughs] We get epiphanies, confessions, prank calls…you name it.
NBF: The people who call in anonymously share really honest and vulnerable stories. Why do you think that books are the vector that allows that kind of vulnerability?
LS: Well, if you think about the nature of reading a book, it’s a very private, intimate experience that carries out over a long period of time. In that time, inside your head, you’re creating images and meeting characters and going through various narrative climaxes and resolutions. If it’s a good book, then at the end of it, your life looks a little different.
I think that when you finish a book, you always want to talk about it with someone, and of course it’s always better to talk about it with someone who has actually read the book, or at least someone who’s interested in listening. That’s definitely one thing that everyone on the Call Me Ishmael team is: interested in hearing people’s stories about how books have affected their lives, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
Some of the most interesting stories come from people who sound like they’re a bit older. It’s all anonymous, so we never know exactly who the person is or where they’re coming from, but, for example, there’s a call about The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. The caller alludes to his age in saying that he was born a year or two before Brown v. Board of Education, and he goes on to talk about how The Sneetches changed and defined his perspective on race relations growing up. It’s very interesting to hear someone who was born in the ’50s reflecting back on a book that he read in his childhood. I think there’s an incredible amount of perspective and wisdom gained over such a long amount of time.
NBF: There are also a few about To Kill a Mockingbird that seem to be from people who are old enough to have their own children. Do you tend to get callers who are anywhere in particular on the age spectrum – do they tend to be younger or older?
LS: Well, it depends on what’s going on and how they discover [the project]. For example, on one particular day John Green decided to share Call Me Ishmael with J.K. Rowling for her and Harry’s shared birthday – he tweeted a playlist that we had about Harry Potter to her. So that day, because John is such a fantastic author and presence on social media, we actually got hundreds of calls in a matter of minutes. In that case, because his demographic is generally a bit younger, everyone sounded like young adult readers.
We also get calls from people who have children who want to tell stories about the experiences they’ve had reading to their kids. Another recurring theme is calls about books that affected someone when they went to college or when they left home and became independent for the first time. It’s clear that transitional periods in life are perfect opportunities for books to have a major impact on a reader.
People of all ages read, so it’s certainly appropriate for people of all ages to call. On the very youngest end of the spectrum, we had this awesome day where an entire class decided to call in and share their opinions on Cat in the Hat. A lot of kindergartners letting us know what they thought about the Cat in the Hat coming back. [both laugh] One of those is featured, if you want to check it out.
NBF: Was there a consensus?
LS: You’ll have to listen for yourself. [both laugh] The one that we featured is really adorable. They’re all great, but the one that we featured was particularly exuberant.
NBF: Speaking of John Green, I recall one about The Fault in Our Stars. She, like many of the other callers, ended by saying “thank you.” When you get the thank-you at the end, how does that make you feel?
LS: Well, I think it’s a really neat phenomenon. The very first caller addressed the person they were talking to as “Ishmael” and then thanked Ishmael at the end. It was at that moment that we knew that we launched something special.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Logan Smalley” link=”” color=”#FBC901″ class=”” size=””]For as long as there has been reading, fictional stories have been affecting people’s lives in very real ways.[/pullquote]
People share beautifully real and vivid moments with a voice mailbox named after a fictional character that is now over a century and a half old. To me, that exchange is in tune with literature itself. For as long as there has been reading, fictional stories have been affecting people’s lives in very real ways. So I think that it’s only appropriate that the fictional character who sits at the helm of this project is being thanked in reality for listening.
NBF: What plans do you have, if any, to create or solicit original content?
LS: Ishmael’s phone number will be up for as long as there are phones. That won’t change. We’re also interested in creating a book around the project. We aren’t exactly sure what will be inside of the book, but of course it will incorporate some of the stories we’ve received and hopefully a healthy amount of illustrations.
NBF: I have one last question for you, and it’s the big one. What is your dream for the project’s future?
LS: That sentence [“Call me Ishmael”] has served as the point of embarkation for millions of readers for over a century and a half. I would like for this iteration of Ishmael — the character, the narrator, the listener, the “fortuitous witness”– to continue the journey and evolve into a character that helps people discover and celebrate great books.