Fire-resistant edition of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ up for auction at Sotheby’s

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In a short video released Monday, Margaret Atwood’s face is lit only by the blue-purple fire blazing from a flamethrower she holds in her arms. Her target is her own novel, the dystopian cultural phenomenon “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But the book doesn’t burn when the fire hits the cover – instead, the flames graze the edges and float away without leaving any wreckage.

The approximately one-minute video advertises a unique auction through Sotheby’s: a unique, incombustible copy of Atwood’s best-selling novel that critics say has become frighteningly more relevant in the decades since its first publication. All proceeds will go to PEN America, a non-profit organization that promotes free speech 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 unburnablebook.com.

The book is “an edition of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ made to withstand not only the fire-breathing censors and blazing bigots, but real flames — the ones they’d like to use to burn down our democracy,” said Faith Salie, a journalist and comedian who organized Monday night PEN gala, where the auction was announced. The starting bid is $35,000.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel has been banned from schools for more than three decades. The American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Banned Books by Decade includes “The Handmaid’s Tale” in its catalogs for the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010.

The story is set in a version of the United States, where a fundamentalist religious group has overthrown democracy, murdered the president and most of Congress, and deprived women of almost all rights, including reading. In patriarchal society, women are relegated to dutiful, submissive wives or, for the fertile infidels, to slaves of the religious upper class for the sole purpose of having 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 has resurfaced as a cultural touchstone in recent years. Imagery from the book has been invoked as conservative state lawmakers rolled back reproductive rights laws and increased censorship on what is taught in schools. Most recently, women wore red capes and white hoods — worn by maidservants in Atwood’s novel — to protest the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion on overthrowing Roe v. Wade

The fire-resistant edition of the book is made from materials that can withstand temperatures up to 1220 degrees Fahrenheit and is hand-sewn with nickel wire, according to the publisher. It took the Gas Company, which specializes in binding and printing, two months to put together the novel, the AP reported.

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

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

“Do it now,” said Salie, the gala host, encouraging the crowd to bid. “We don’t want to disappoint Margaret – we saw her wield a blowtorch.”

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