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Novel Approach to Books

By Lory Hough, on January 9, 2015 11:30 AM
The Call Me Ishmael project -- a literary website dedicated to first lines of great books -- has caught the attention of readers everywhere, including some famous names.

A guy walks into a bar … almost. There’s a guy, a bar, and a beginning, but it’s more like this: A guy, an Ed School alum, was sitting in a bar in New York City, talking with friends about books. Being creative types, they wondered if they could start a literary website about first sentences.

“The ‘Call me Ishmael’ line came up,” says Logan Smalley, Ed.M.’08, referring to the famous first line of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. “We wondered, what if Ishmael had a phone? If you could call Ishmael, what would you tell him?”

From there, on a cocktail napkin, they sketched out what would become the Call Me Ishmael project. People anonymously call into an answering machine and hear a simple greeting, something like: “Hi. This is Ishmael. After the beep, leave me a message about a book you love and a story you’ve lived.”

When the project first started in June, Smalley, the director of TED-Ed, assumed they’d get a handful of calls and that most people would just give a book review — exactly what they weren’t looking for. Instead, the project exploded. Within two months, about 800 callers left their stories, some incredibly touching.

“We started getting really heartfelt messages,” Smalley says. “The anonymity allows people to say things they wouldn’t otherwise say.”

Twice a week, a call is transcribed on an old typewriter and featured as an audio and video clip on the website. Unedited versions of every voicemail that Ishmael receives are also posted.

These voicemails have caught the attention of some famous writers and celebrities, including The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, who mentioned the project on his Facebook page, and Mitch Albom, who tweeted about an Ishmael caller who read aloud his book Tuesdays With Morrie during car rides with her peevish father. Recently, Joe Hanson, creator of the popular YouTube channel, It’s Okay to Be Smart, was a guest host for a new feature of the Ishmael project: The All Call Challenge. The challenge has a well-known person like Hanson ask callers to phone in about a certain type of book. (Hanson’s challenge: about a book that changed the way callers look at the natural world.)

Smalley says despite his full-time job at TED and the demands of this new project, which he manages with the help of a small team of other volunteers, he remains an avid reader.

“I always make time to read, at least a chapter or two a day, although I would love to be able to read more,” he says. Asked if he has called Ishmael yet, he says he hasn’t. “I will. Probably on the year anniversary.”

To call Ishmael...

Step #1
Call Ishmael’s number: 774.325.0503. It goes straight to voicemail.

Step #2
Listen to Ishmael’s short answering machine message. It changes weekly.

Step #3
Leave a voicemail about a book you love and a story you have lived.

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