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Building Stories: Cartoonist Chris Ware Explores the Architecture of Being Human

What the inner life of a brownstone reveals about empathy, gender, and the human condition.

Building Stories (public library) is a remarkable storytelling artifact by cartoonist Chris Ware, more than a decade in the making — a giant box containing fourteen individual print ephemera (books, booklets, comic strips, magazines, and even a gold-rimmed hardcover and a board game), each telling the interlocking tales of different residents of the same three-story Chicago brownstone, from the couple caught in a loveless relationship on the second floor, to the elderly spinster grappling with her own aging, to the bee trapped in the basement. Somewhere between Paula Scher’s vintage children’s book The Brownstone, the Cold-War-era experimental Polish short film Blok, and artist Yasmine Chatila’s Stolen Moments series, the project — which I hesitate to call a “book,” since it’s a lavish deal more — is at once voyeuristic and deeply intimate, exploring the boundless complexities of inner worlds, relationships, and the hopeful hopelessness of being human.

Image via The Telegraph

Ware writes:

Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lies of its inhabitants. Anything… the briefest blossom of a movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality. … Even the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.

The stories and stories-within-stories are all told through the perspective of one character, the female amputee on the third floor, deliberately left unnamed. In fact, part of what makes Ware’s feat so remarkable is that he manages to explore the intricacies of gender, and of women’s everyday psychoemotional turmoils, with a remarkable blend of rawness and sensitivity, without any of the cumbersome self-righteousness and forced political correctness typical of writing that is about gender.

On a recent episode of Design Matters, the inimitable Debbie Millman ( ) talks to Ware about being influenced by Charles Schulz and Art Spiegelman, about his ethos and sensibility, and about the fascinating, layered narratives and characters in Building Stories. Here are a few favorite excerpts from the interview:

On giving shape to the human experience:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes’… And that seems ridiculous to me — I mean, that’s what writing is about. It’s about trying to understand other people.

On the relationship between storytelling and empathy:

On the characters in Building Stories, the role of sadness, and what writing is really about:

On the building itself as a character:

On destiny, sexuality, the essence of literature, and the tragedy of our unlived lives — including one of the most beautiful phrases ever uttered, “veering towards happiness”:

When people’s paths cross, is there some higher plan to it all? Do all of these frozen moments just represent accidents, or genuine missed opportunities?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Design Matters in its entirety (or, better yet, subscribe in iTunes), then do yourself a second favor and grab your very own copy of Building Stories. You’ll never look at a city block, or a dimly lit window, or a bee the same way again.

Published November 5, 2012




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