Recently, I’ve been reading some books on my iPad. I never really wanted an iPad in the first place, let alone to read books on, but when I bought my girlfriend a new one for her birthday, I ended up inheriting her 1st generation one. I was definitely snobbish towards the whole operation at first, but I quickly realized that being able to read a new book on the subway on a convenient little piece of glass instead of a bulky, expensive hardcover was pretty great. I could carry around massive tomes with ease. Maybe it wasn’t so wack after all. But then my copy of Chris Ware‘s new book Building Stories arrived in the mail. The piece of glass dimmed noticeably.
Most famous for his heartbreaking work Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid On Earth, American cartoonist Chris Ware has spent his career crafting intricate comics, the pages overflowing with precise lines, minuscule text, and loads of tiny little boxes that are best described as the news reports from DKR as done by an exuberant architect. He’s also, as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan or any of his ACME series, almost overwhelmingly depressing. Building Stories – a highly unique object collecting decades of his work into one cohesive piece – may be his greatest achievement yet.
Arriving in a large box – say 18″x12″x3″ or so – you know you’re in for something good, or at least interesting. The box is beautiful, and spares no time in getting into the story. There are little comics spattered around the white cardboard edges, castoff bits of narrative that – especially after reading the rest – are actually kind of important. Inside are 14 different things, each of which an equal and unordered piece of Building Stories. Following the denizens of a single 3 story Chicago house – though focused almost entirely on one resident, a nameless female amputee – the fourteen pieces of Building Stories can be read in any order, slowly putting together a tableau of shattering sadness.
Each individual work is its own triumph, whether it’s a somewhat longer Golden Book style item (beautifully bound), massive unfolding sheets that will cover your kitchen table (one features a stunning life size drawing of a toddler), thing staples strips that are like weeks of a Sunday comic strip held together, elliptical tri-folds, or even a newspaper from a beehive (surprisingly, or maybe not, equally dark as the rest). I was beaming just spreading them all out on my table, both at their physical beauty and sheer effort of the whole thing. The wonderful implementation of the physicality of the object.
Then, over the next 3 hours or so, I read them all and promptly fell into one of those profound and wonderful funks where you’ve been directly confronted with someone’s genius and suddenly feel like a troglodyte, made all the more exhausting by this genius’ somehow humanistic misanthropy. I really loved it. It’s also a miracle of construction. There’s no point spoiling any of the plot points, as in Ware’s world even the most mundane developments can come like a gut punch depending on in what order you encounter them.
And that order is so important, and not at the same time. When I finished I was convinced that I had – by some impossible stroke of luck – read them in the correct progression despite grabbing them willy nilly from the box. There are, of course, a pretty staggering number of variations, which means I was being a dumbass. Reflecting on the experience, I started to swap some of them around in my head and quickly realized how different, and yet great in another way they would have been shuffled around. So I read it again differently, and so many new layers were revealed. I imagine it would happen if I did it again (protip: I probably will).
Something you read in part 1 (not that they’re numbered) might be totally forgotten by part 10, but if on the next pass you read them as 5 and 6 new connections and relationships between the pieces will reveal themselves, happy things suddenly seeming sad and vice versa. It’s wonderful. This exceptional work is only $30 on Amazon right now. That’s the same amount you would pay for any new hardcover, and this is a beautiful object you could be happy to display, and will be better for having read. Buy it, please.- Whole Milk