Some time last month I went to the post office to pick up a package that I’d been waiting for for a few weeks; It was my copy of Chris Ware’s Building Stories. While I was at the pick-up window the post office guy (not sure what his job title is) looked at then package and then looked at me and asked, “Is this some kind of board game?” I said no, it’s graphic novel… he gave me look that I wasn’t sure how to read. There is no customs charge on books, so maybe he was thinking I was trying to pull a fast one on him so I didn’t have to pay for what looked like a board game to him. After a few seconds of not saying anything he let me leave. It may have helped that there was another book in the package.
In case you’re wondering, Building Stories is a graphic novel—at least that’s the only way that I can think to describe it. I often think of it as an unbound graphic novel with chapters of various sizes, from pamphlet to broadsheet, that can be read in any order. I’ve read it one way so far, from smallest to largest, which seemed to be the easiest and the most obvious way to read it. That’s the cool part about Ware’s graphic novel, you can choose how you want to approach the narrative, there’s even suggestions on the back of the box where you can place or “lose” certain contents of the box in certain parts of a “well appointed house” (that is your house not someone else’s), only to rediscover and read them later. Building Stories allows the reader to build the stories in anyway he/she sees fit.
This isn’t something that can be read on an e-reader, reading Building Stories is a very tactile experience. You have to pick up the different pieces and while reading the different sections or chapters you can’t help but feel the the differing textures. Before reading Ware’s work I’d read few books on the kindle app on my iPad, so reading Building Stories was not only a reminder of the pleasure of reading something physical, but it made me realise that there are some reading experiences that an e-reader can’t duplicate.
Having said that, the same can be said for e-books. I recently finished reading Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys, which won the OCM Bocas Lit Fest Award in April of this year, and I really loved Antoni’s use of videos as well as other “artefacts” that help set the tone for the novel. It’s true that if I had the physical copy of Antoni’s book all I would have to do would’ve be to go to my computer or mobile device and watch them there, but that would require pulling myself out the narrative to watch the video and then and have to get comfortable again. Reading Antoni’s book on my iPad was better, because I didn’t have to move, the videos both appeared with a gentle tap of the thumb. I also love the bit where I can buy a book and it instantly appears in my digital library, but that’s just me.
Book or e-book? I think that Ware and Antoni have shown that both have their merits. At least it seems that one form is not necessarily better than the other, just different.