November 19, 2015

Call Me Ishmael says, “No really — call me!”


The prototype of the new Call Me Ishmael phone, as seen on their Kickstarter page, which was tested in Athens, Georgia's Avid Bookshop.

The prototype for the new Call Me Ishmael phone at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia.

Back in 2014, two friends in Georgia set up a phone number and created Call Me Ishmael, a project that allowed people to call and leave a message describing a book they love and how it impacted them. The Call Me Ishmael founders would then film themselves transcribing the message on a typewriter, match the video to the original audio, and post it online. You can see videos of callers talking about everything from The Bell Jar and Animal Farm to Jumanji and Twilight here.

In the last year, Call Me Ishmael has received over 1,000 calls, and over 1 million readers have listened to and watched the videos of the recordings. It’s been so successful, in fact, that creators Logan Smalley and Steph Kent have decided to expand the project by giving Ishmael an actual phone. They explain on their Kickstarter page what they have in mind:

How does the Call Me Ishmael Phone work? Your local librarian or indie bookstore manager acts as a curator and assigns any of Ishmael’s stories to their Phone. Curators use a simple web application, their venue’s wifi and a printable sign to swap in a new sets of stories once per day. When visiting readers dial a button on the Phone, a beautifully bookish story plays through the Phone’s headset. There are infinite ways to use the phone, but here are a few examples we’ve imagined:

  • Stories from members of your bookstore staff or library
  • Stories about books that take place in your town
  • Stories about books by visiting authors
  • Stories from local students

Curators can also press a mischievous button on the web application that makes the phone ring. If an unsuspecting reader picks up the ringing phone, a random bookish story will automatically play.

Smalley and Kent tested a prototype at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, and started the Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 towards providing a phone to any literary venue that wants one. According to Laura James at Flagpole, they’ve already raised enough money to extend their goals:

The Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $18,000 from more than 300 backers with 18 days left to go. The new goal is 500 backers, and if they meet it, 10 phones will go out to any school, library or bookstore that wants to try one for only the cost of shipping.

Although Smalley and Kent mainly had bookstores in mind when creating the phone, they’ve heard a lot of interest from librarians and teachers.

Smalley told James that one of his favorite voicemails was “about the Dr. Seuss book The Sneetches and how it helped a man understand issues of race during his childhood in the civil rights movement and throughout his life.” He went on to underscore Call Me Ishmael’s mission: “We’re excited to make these stories available in a really interactive and enchanting way, so that when someone listens to a story they can be within arms reach of…the book the phone helps them discover.”

It’s hard to argue with that. You can donate to the Kickstarter here.

Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.