Building Stories

Chris Ware

I assumed that I’d love this graphic novel due to its book-as-object nature, so much so that when I recently read Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s description of it being “not an actual book so much as a twee art project,” I also assumed that was an unnecessarily harsh opinion. Yet once I spent some time with it, I found myself agreeing with her more than I expected.

Building Stories comes in a relatively gigantic box (roughly 12x2x17″), and I was glad that I opted to check it out from the library first instead of possibly ordering it online, as it was so much bigger than I anticipated — too big for the tote bag I had with me, so I cradled it home on the bus. This is not a book-as-object for someone living in a small Brooklyn apartment. Vargas-Cooper also noted “its elaborate packaging allows the thing to double as an oversized merit badge of taste and sensitivity to be displayed on the coffee tables of the McSweeney’s set,” yet my coffee table isn’t even big enough for it.

For all that physical size, you’d expect it to be an impressively massive in scope and impact. Inside the box is a series of books and pamphlets that roughly sketch a story of a building in Chicago and some of the people who live there over the years. These stories overlap and are at times repetitive, plus various pieces of the story have been published other places, so I’d actually read a good chunk of this over the years. Having that previous exposure wound up being a distraction, as I tried to remember where exactly I’d seen this or that group of frames before. There’s no real beginning or end and especially getting this from the library meant that I had no idea what order things initially came in or if perhaps something had gone missing while the book-as-box visited a previous patron. There were a few pieces I skipped entirely, and unfortunately I wound up reading the section that bummed me out the most at the end.

What I appreciated about it was that the box functions as something that perhaps you might dig up in a neglected attic, which relates cleanly with the character of the building in these stories. So I imagine this is something that is better stumbled upon than sought out unless you are just a big fan of Chris Ware’s unflagging pathos.