Acclaimed Author and Activist Margaret Atwood Strikes Back with “The Unburnable Book”

Going once, going twice… sold!

Yesterday a virtual gavel concluded a two-week online auction for The Unburnable Book, a beautifully customized single volume of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale created to protest book bans. Printed on fire-resistant paper, bound with flame-retardant covers, it was sold at auction for $ 130,000 by Sotheby’s, with proceeds going to PEN America. This unique literary objective d’art was “a magic idea,” says Jared Bland, of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House and Atwood’s longtime Canadian publisher, “one that came together in a compressed timeline.”

This year, with book bans accelerating from Tennessee to Texas to South Dakota — and with bonfires chillingly captured on camera — Penguin Random House Canada and US joined forces with Atwood to strike back. In early February, Bland was pitched the idea of ​​an “unburnable” book by a Toronto-based independent creative agency, Rethink, and brought the proposal to his management team. The Handmaid’s Tale seemed the perfect choice; over the decades it’s been intermittently banned throughout North America. Atwood was “game” from the start, and requested all proceeds to go to PEN America, given her lengthy relationship with that organization. She agreed to star in a lush promotional video, shot on a Toronto soundstage. The book itself was crafted by a print-and-bindery master, Jeremy Martin.

Bland and his colleagues in both Canada and the United States wanted “to make as big a splash as possible” as they considered auction venues. One firm rose above the rest. He “cold-emailed” Richard Austin, senior vice president at Sotheby’s New York and head of the department of books and manuscripts, who responded enthusiastically and put together the logistics of the auction. In the now-famous video — unveiled at PEN America’s Manhattan gala last month — Atwood, steely-eyed but with a smile teasing her lips, tests a prototype. She dons leather gloves and a flamethrower to torch the crown jewel of her own oeuvre — to no avail.

Since its original publication in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has morphed into both literary touchstone and social flashpoint, a futuristic fable that reveals more about our current moment than a “Breaking News” chyron on Fox News. Set in patriarchal Gilead, a totalitarian successor to a toppled American government, the novel traces the fate of Offred, a handmaid or concubine forced to give birth to the progeny of powerful men. The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, translated into a 1990 feature film, a 2000 opera, a 2017 television miniseries, and even spawned Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, published in 2019, igniting firestorms of debate as the fate of women’s bodily autonomy hangs in the balance.

The Handmaid's Tale
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Unburnable Book, then, is literally indestructible, its physical form a metaphor for voices on the margins as well as those whose views we abhor. Our First Amendment is a gift to the world, resonating from Manhattan’s 1915 March for Suffrage to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Soweto to Tiananmen Square; and in the spirit of Atwood’s magnum opus, we must stand for freedom of expression, full stop. Or as she observes: “I’m very pleased that the one-of-a-kind Unburnable Book of The Handmaid’s Tale has raised so much money for PEN America. Free speech issues are being hotly debated, and PEN is a sane voice amidst all the shouting. The video of the book being torched by me and refusing to burn has now had a potential five billion views. We hope it raises awareness and leads to reasoned discussion. ”

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