Margaret Atwood Tried—and Failed—to Burn a Copy of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Here’s Why

A fireproof version of her bestseller is a weapon in an ongoing fight against literary censorship

Margaret Atwood tries burning The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood tried burning the new, fireproof version of her novel The Handmaid's Tale with a flamethrower. Courtesy Rethink / Penguin Random House

First released in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale is a longtime bestseller… and a longtime object of censorship. The futuristic, dystopian novel about patriarchy run wild has long been one of the United States’ most-banned books—fodder for those who would censor or even burn its searing words.

Now, Atwood has partnered up with her publisher, Penguin Random House, to create a version of the book that’s impossible to ignite anything other than heated debate. It’s fireproof.

On Thursday, auction house Sotheby’s sold the unburnable book for $130,000. Proceeds will go to PEN America to support its advocacy for free expression and fight against book banning.

According to the group, The Handmaid’s Tale is a favorite scapegoat for those who would forbid books, and is often targeted for its sexual and health-related content.

The Handmaid's Tale has been banned many times—sometimes by whole countries, such as Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists, sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries,” the Canadian author said in a statement.

In its recent report “Banned in the USA,” PEN documents 1,586 cases of a variety of reported book bans in the United States in 2021, spanning 26 states and 86 school districts. According to the report, a “disproportionate” number of bans target stories about people of color or LGBTQ+ people.

Out of all the bans listed, 98 percent deviated from “reconsideration” guidelines recommended by the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship, per PEN.

“It is not just the number of books removed that is disturbing, but the processes—or lack thereof—through which such removals are being carried out” that is cause for alarm, the group writes. The state with the greatest amount of book bans last year was Texas, with 713 prohibited books per the report, followed by Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma. In 2021, Texas governor Greg Abbott requested school boards to discard books he referred to as "pornography," Sharif Paget and Nicole Chavez report for CNN.

Though Atwood’s novel has often faced bans itself, the group says it’s symbolic of an entire modern-day movement to stifle literary expression.

“In the face of a determined effort to censor and silence, this unburnable book is an emblem of our collective resolve to protect books, stories and ideas from those who fear and revile them,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.

The Handmaid’s Tale debuted to mixed reviews. But over the years, it has become a classic, touted by some as a frighteningly prescient prediction about the trajectory of American society. It depicts life in the Republic of Gilead, the repressive, totalitarian religious state that replaced the U.S. in a fictitious future, putting men in charge and relegating women to lives of subservience as sexually subjugated “handmaids.”

The book’s main character, wrote author Mary McCarthy in a 1986 review in the New York Times, has “an unwillingness to stick her neck out, and perhaps we are meant to conclude that such unwillingness, multiplied, may be fatal to a free society.” Since its publication, the book has been translated into over 40 languages, per a 2017 essay by Atwood in the Times.

The "unburnable" book auctioned for $130,000
The "unburnable" book sold for $130,000 at Sotheby’s. Courtesy Rethink / Penguin Random House

Although it might look like an ordinary 384-page book, the fireproof edition is mostly made from Cinefoil, a specially treated aluminum foil, and contains other products such as fire-resistant inks and nickel wire. The technology—which protects the book even when heated to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit—was designed by the creative agency Rethink and the graphic arts studio The Gas Company, Inc.

The 82-year-old author has published her works in more than 45 countries and has written over 50 books. Now, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an award-winning TV series that can be streamed on Hulu.

In her 2017 essay in the Times, Atwood wrote that she is often asked if her bleak book is a prediction about where American society is headed. “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen,” she wrote. “But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”

“I stopped writing [the novel] several times, because I considered it too far-fetched," she wrote for the Atlantic last month. “Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?”

In a launch video presenting the fireproof book, Atwood tries and fails to burn a prototype with a flamethrower. And she is just as evasive about the future of literary censorship.

“Let's hope we don't reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451,” Atwood said in a statement referencing the classic Ray Bradbury novel. “But if we do, let's hope some books will prove unburnable—that they will travel underground, as prohibited books did in the Soviet Union.”

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