Amid political firestorms over books deemed by rightwingers to be unsuitable for school libraries, the author Margaret Atwood has announced an “unburnable” edition of her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Canadian author, 82, appeared in a short YouTube video to announce the project, attempting to flambé the one-off tome with a flame-thrower.
Announcing the book, Penguin Random House said: “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.
“Printed and bound using fireproof materials, this edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was made to be completely un-burnable. It is designed to protect this vital story and stand as a powerful symbol against censorship.”
As described by the Guardian in 2010, the 25th anniversary of publication, The Handmaid’s Tale “tells the story of Offred – not her real name, but the patronymic she has been given by the new regime in an oppressive parallel America of the future – and each role as a Handmaid.
“The Handmaids are forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of a higher social status, the wives of Commanders. They undergo regular medical tests, and in many ways become invisible, the sum total of their biological parts.”
According to the American Library Association, The Handmaid’s Tale is among books most often challenged or banned in US schools.
In 2006, in an open letter to a school district which attempted to ban the book, Atwood said: “First, the remark: ‘Offensive to Christians’ amazes me. 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.”
Atwood’s book has risen to new prominence thanks to a TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss and a 2019 sequel, The Testaments, which won Atwood a second Booker prize. “Handmaid” costumes, red cloaks with white headdresses, have become a familiar sight at protests for reproductive and women’s rights.
The auction of an “unburnable” edition of The Handmaid’s Tale comes ahead of an expected ruling reversing the right to abortion, to be handed down by a supreme court dominated by conservative justices.
In a new essay collection, Burning Questions, Atwood 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 idol.”
Every “unburnable” book is being auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York until 7 June. By mid-morning on Tuesday, the price stood at $40,000. All proceeds will go to support Pen America in its “work in support of free expression”.
Hosting a Pen gala in New York on Monday night, Faith Salie, a writer and comedian, said the book was “made to withstand not only the fire-breathing censors and blazing bigots but actual flames – the ones they would like to use to burn down our democracy”.