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Responding to book censorship, Atwood auctions fireproof ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Penguin Random House released an advertisement on May 23 showing Margaret Atwood with a flamethrower and a burn-proof edition of "The Handmaid's Tale." (Video: RETHINK)
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In a short video released Monday, Margaret Atwood’s face is lit only by the blue and purple fire blazing out of a flamethrower she’s holding in her arms. Her target is her own novel, the dystopian cultural phenomenon “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But the book doesn’t incinerate when the fire hits the cover — instead, the flames graze the edges, floating away with no wreckage left behind.

The book is fireproof.

The approximately one-minute video advertises a unique auction through Sotheby’s: a one-of-a-kind, unburnable copy of Atwood’s best-selling novel that critics say has become hauntingly more relevant in the decades since it was first published. All proceeds will go to PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free expression through literature.

The auction, first reported by the Associated Press, is a direct response to the growing number of book burnings and bans in schools and libraries, Atwood’s publisher, Penguin Random House, said on the promotional website

The book is “an edition of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ 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,” said Faith Salie, a journalist and comedian who hosted Monday night’s PEN gala, where the auction was announced. The starting bid is $35,000.

Atwood’s novel, first published in 1985, has been banned in schools for over three decades. The American Library Association’s list of top 100 banned books per decade includes “The Handmaid’s Tale” in its catalogues for the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.

The story takes place in a version of the United States where a fundamentalist religious group has overthrown democracy, assassinated the president and most of Congress, and stripped women of nearly every right, including reading. In the patriarchal society, women are relegated to being dutiful, subservient wives or, for the fertile nonbelievers, enslaved people to the religious upper class with the sole purpose of bearing children for the man of the house. The book was adapted into a TV show in 2017, and in 2019 Atwood published a sequel, “The Testaments,” which won the Booker Prize.

The novel resurfaced as a cultural touchstone in recent years. Imagery from the book has been invoked when conservative state lawmakers have rolled back laws pertaining to reproductive rights and increased censorship over what is taught in schools. Most recently, women donned red capes and white hoods — worn by handmaids in Atwood’s novel — to protest the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion on overturning Roe v. Wade.

The fire-resistant edition of the book is made of materials that can withstand temperatures up to 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit and was hand-sewn with nickel wire, according to the publisher. It took the Gas Company, which specializes in binding and printing, two months to put the novel together, the AP reported.

“It is designed to protect this vital story and stand as a powerful symbol against censorship,” the book’s promotional website says.

The online auction opened Monday night and closes June 7. The book will be on display at Sotheby’s headquarters in New York from June 4 to June 7.

“Do it now,” Salie, the host at the gala, said as she encouraged the crowd to start bidding. “We do not want to disappoint Margaret — we have seen her wielding a blowtorch.”