> Zed Book Club / Margaret Atwood’s “Unburnable” Edition of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Sells For $130,000 at Auction

Canadian author Margaret Atwood, seen here in a 2019 photo, has partnered with Penguin Random House and a pair of Toronto companies to create an "unburnable" edition of her 1985 novel, "The Handmaid's Tale." Photo: Globe and Mail/Canadian Press

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Margaret Atwood’s “Unburnable” Edition of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Sells For $130,000 at Auction

/ BY Andrew Wright / June 8th, 2022


As far as Margaret Atwood knows, her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has never been burned. But with the book often facing bans in schools south of the border, Canada’s Queen of Letters ins’t taking any chances.

The prolific author teamed up with Penguin Random House and a pair of Toronto-based companies — creative agency Rethink and The Gas Company, a graphic arts and bookbinding specialty studio — to create a one-off “unburnable” edition of the critically acclaimed novel.

On Tuesday, Sotheby’s auctioned off the book for US$130,000. Proceeds from the sale will be donated to PEN, an organization that advocates for free expression around the world.

“Across the United States and around the world, books are being challenged, banned and even burned. So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades,” Penguin Random House said.

“Printed and bound using fireproof materials, this edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was made to be completely unburnable. It is designed to protect this vital story and stand as a powerful symbol against censorship.”

Atwood did a little fact checking in a promotional video for the campaign, which sees the 82-year-old writer looking more like an action star as she douses the collectable with a flamethrower.

“In the category of things you never expected, this is one of them,” Atwood said of the project in a telephone interview with AP News.

Margaret Atwood

The pages of the fireproof book are made of Cinefoil, a specially treated aluminum product, and are sewn together using copper nickel wire, while the front and back boards (covers) are phenolic sheets, often used in electronics manufacturing.

The Handmaid’s Tale — which presents an America where women are forced to provide children by proxy for the ruling class — is among the books most often challenged or banned in U.S. schools.

A 2006 attempt to pull the book from a Texas high school district after it was deemed “sexually explicit and offensive to Christians” even prompted a response from Atwood in an open letter.

“First, the remark: ‘Offensive to Christians’ amazes me,” she wrote. “Nowhere in the book is the regime identified as Christian. As for sexual explicitness, The Handmaid’s Tale is a lot less interested in sex than is much of the Bible.”

The book — which has seen a resurgence fuelled by its popular small-screen adaptation of the same name —  has been pulled from schools in Texas and Kansas as recently as 2021.

Meanwhile, its themes, including the suppression of women’s reproductive rights, remains more relevant than ever as the U.S. Supreme Court — dominated by conservative justices — prepares to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.

Atwood also tackles the subject of abortion rights directly in her new book of essays, Burning Questions.

“Enforced childbirth is slavery,” she writes.

“Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved because the state claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put … The only similar circumstance for men is conscription into an army.

“We say that women ‘give birth.’ And mothers who have chosen to be mothers do give birth, and feel it as a gift. But if they have not chosen, birth is not a gift they give; it is an extortion from them against their wills.”

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