“On Bookstores, Burners and Origami” by Jason Wittman: An Appreciation by Colleen Mondor
Sometimes fate really blows my mind, you know?
Wittman has taken what could have been just a stale retelling of a very old story and given it some lovely and surprising twists. In fact, he has reinvented the book burning/banning tale as we know it. First, “Bookstores” takes place in an alternate history for the United States. It is 1887 and “police dirigibles” hover overhead. The country has come out of the Civil War and into a government that is determined to stamp out negativism. To accomplish this, the Hornsby Administration has purchased all of the publishing houses in the country. Only positive works are still being published, leaving all negative titles to face oblivion. The face of negative publishing is Edgar Allen Poe, rescued here from his untimely date with a gutter and finally allowed to become a living grand master of American literature. Poe is the face of a movement to undermine the government, and the “soldiers” are dedicated volunteers across the country that operate illegal printing presses.
As if this wasn’t enough chaos and confusion for any society, the story’s heroes must also deal with a group known as “burners” who have set fire to their bookstore. No one knows the motivation behind this group although it seems to be just a general desire to destroy books. One of the story’s better revelations is when Poe directly challenges the burners and learns just why they do this. It also allows for a brief stirring speech from Mr. James, an employee of the bookstore and former slave. This exchange gets to the heart of why books matter, and how their importance must be conveyed to everyone, on every level of society.
All of this would have been enough to make me love Wittman’s story. He has given us something to think about when it comes to books and writing, and even presented an intriguing subplot about positive versus negative literature. This seemed particularly prescient to me as the National Book Award announcement was made yesterday. The award for Children’s Book went to The Penderwicks over Autobiography of My Dead Brother. The first is largely a sweet story about children who overcome all and teach someone the true meaning of being a parent – it’s a nice book and one I enjoyed reviewing, but it pales in comparison to the depth and richness of Walter Dean Myers’s much darker novel of inner city challenges. Of course this is just an award and no one is stopping us from buying the books we want but what message is sent when a book is chosen primarily because it is “enormously heartwarming and satisfying”? President Hornsby would applaud this choice I’m sure, while Poe would be terribly disheartened.
The part of the story I’m leaving out though is what I loved best in “Bookstores” – the magic. Hitomi is an employee and ardent believer in the power of literature. She also has a talent for origami as taught to her by her grandfather. As the story proceeds towards Poe’s arrival and the showdown with the burners, Hitomi uncovers her grandfather’s amazing secret and the powerful magic it contains. Ultimately she uses this gift to protect the bookstore and the way in which it is transformed by the works of Mr. Poe makes for a thrilling and, dare I say, most satisfying, climax to the story. Wittman doesn’t cheat us out of a solid ending either, or shy away from the questions that his own characters have raised. He leaves you at the end thinking about how important literacy is, and what our responsibility is to increase it.
I think that Jason Wittman has done a lot with “Bookstores, Burners and Origami”, and most importantly created a wholly original and fascinating world. This is the kind of place that is born in a short story, and then may flourish later in frequent visits by the author. Although I am quite certain that it would be classified as “negative” literature, it was certainly a winner for me. And regardless of the future of SciFiction, Mr. Wittman now has a fan for life.
Isn’t it great what one short story can do?