Don’t Judge a Book by its Many Covers

A Review of Building Stories by Chris Ware

I wanted to get my hands on this book ever since I first heard about it. House of Leaves was the first book that piqued my interest in stories with innovative design and structure and I would say this “graphic novel” definitely falls into that category.

Can you call it a book if it’s a 14 piece collection that’s stored in a box the size of a board game? There’s no instruction manual, by the way. Just dive right in, in whatever order you see fit. I did my best to ignore the structure-loving part of my brain and finished this in an afternoon.

So, in the spirit of the book, I broke up my review into 14 points. Read them in whatever order you see fit.

1. I loved the dual meaning of the title. The reader is essentially building the story based on the order he or she reads it. It is also a story surrounding the buildings the characters occupy, making the buildings themselves characters in the tale.

2. Chicago is the setting! My hometown! This certainly upped my enjoyment of the book. The illustrations are really stripped down, so having such a familiarity with the setting compensated for an otherwise flat background.

3. My initial excitement gave way to boredom and annoyance. Boredom because, after a certain point, I got the gist of the story and had no real desire to read the last few pieces. Annoyance because, when I did read the remainder, it only seemed to add inconsequential information that I didn’t really care about.

4. At first it seemed like the book would focus on all the tenants of the brownstone equally, but I was mistaken. The main character was the one I was least interested in hearing about, and the others only make appearances in a few of the pieces, mainly because the protagonist moves away from the only interesting people we encounter.

5. I found the main character to be super annoying. She calls herself an optimist but she always seemed to be complaining about something. The internal monologue that runs throughout the book very self-centered and depressing. Self-centeredness may be the nature of internal monologue but if that’s the case, it should be used more sparingly.

6. I’ve read and enjoyed my fair share of postmodern books, but this seemed like an extra concentration of what can be so frustrating about this style. The pendulum constantly swings back and forth: nothing matters, everything matters, nothing matters…I’m leaning towards “this story doesn’t matter.”


Not the easiest photo to take..

7. There are a lot of specific cultural references to the past couple years. I can see this giving the story a “best if used by” date.

8. That freakin’ bee Bernard, or whatever his name was. So annoying, so unnecessary; I wanted to squash him myself. I ended up skimming the pieces that focused on him.

9. A lot of sexual references and pictures (is “pictures” the right word to use with graphic novels?) so take that for what you will. It’s definitely not brought up in a sexy way. I wouldn’t consider myself a prude but it seemed pretty unnecessary after a while, especially when there was thought bubble after thought bubble of a bee banging his queen. Yeah, there’s that.

10. Although I appreciate the creativity involved, there’s a point where the novelty of the format wore off and I longed for the simple structure of a plain old book. I would love to see someone try to read this book out in public, particularly the extra large newspaper.

11. With 14 individual pieces and no particular order to read them, you have 87178291200 possible ways to read this story. Because I chose to read it in a certain sequence, does that influence my overall impression of the book? Probably, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

12. I would say I’m fairly intelligent, but the format occasionally left me confused. There were a few cues given to let readers now when exactly a certain scene was happening in the overall timeline (like hairstyles) but there were a good number of times where I wasn’t sure when things were happening. More dates might have been helpful. Then again, my waning interest probably kept me from putting in the extra effort to figure it out.

13. I think that one of the author’s aims was to give readers perspective on our present worries. Today’s crisis may be soon forgotten, or pale in comparison to what’s up ahead. Even so, the book still felt like a bummer overall. Those slivers of happiness and resolve were weighed down by a protagonist that probably needs to see a counselor instead of unloading on us.

14. I say it’s a 2 out of 5 (following the Goodreads rating scale, which calls 2 out of 5 “ok”). The word I seemed to use the most in this review is “unnecessary” and that doesn’t surprise me. The format, the book, most of what the protagonist shared…unnecessary. I think it had the potential to be something really cool and unique, but it seemed to take the wrong turn at every junction.

Have you ever been lured in by a unique format or premise, only to be left as disappointed as I was?

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6 thoughts on “Don’t Judge a Book by its Many Covers

  1. This is super interesting. I love Ware’s work, but haven’t gotten to this one. Looks like I might not bother. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!


  2. Tori J. says:

    Looks really interesting. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.


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