“It was the day my grandmother exploded”. The opening line of a novel can catch our attention powerfully, and can stay with us long after the book itself is finished. A memorable first line is endlessly quotable, and lends itself to parody (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”). Sometimes, a really cracking first line can even inspire a group of talented people to create a unique and beautiful art object, with a certain tiny computer at its heart.
If you read the roundup of our trip to ALA 2016, you will already have caught a glimpse of this unusual Pi-powered project: the Call Me Ishmael Phone. The idea originated back in 2014 when founders Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent were discussing their favourite opening lines of books: they were both struck by Herman Melville’s laconic phrase in Moby Dick and began wondering, “What if Ishmael had a phone number? What if you actually could call him?” Their Call Me Ishmael project began with a phone number (people outside the US can Skype Ishmael instead), an answering machine, and an invitation to readers to tell Ishmael a story about a book they love, and how it has shaped their life. The most interesting, funny, and poignant stories are transcribed by Stephanie on a manual typewriter and shared on social media.