Acclaimed author and activist Margaret Atwood strikes back with ‘The Unburnable Book’

Go once, go twice…sold!

Yesterday, a virtual hammer concluded a two-week online auction for The unburnable book a beautifully personalized single volume of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale created to protest the banning of books. Pprinted on fireproof paper, bound with fireproof covers, it was auctioned for $130,000 by Sotheby’s, with proceeds going to PEN America. This unique piece of literary art was “a magical idea,” says Jared Bland, of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House and longtime Canadian publisher Atwood, “an idea that came together in a compressed timeline.

This year, with book bans accelerating from Tennessee to Texas to South Dakota – and with bonfires caught on camera – Penguin Random House Canada and the United States have joined forces in Atwood to retaliate. In early February, Bland was offered the idea for an “unwritable” book by a Toronto-based independent creative agency, Rethink, and pitched the proposal to its management team. The Handmaid’s Tale seemed the perfect choice; over the decades, it was intermittently banned throughout North America. Atwood was “game” from the start and asked that all proceeds go to PEN America, given his long relationship with that organization. She agreed to star in a lush promotional video, shot on a Toronto soundstage. The book itself was designed by a master of printing and bookbinding, Jeremy Martin.

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Bland and his colleagues in Canada and the United States wanted to “make as much noise as possible” by considering auction locations. One company has risen above the rest. He “sent a cold email” to Richard Austin, senior vice president of Sotheby’s New York and head of the books and manuscripts department, who responded enthusiastically and arranged the logistics for the auction. In the now-famous video – unveiled at PEN America’s Manhattan gala last month – Atwood, steely-eyed but with a smile teasing his lips, tests out a prototype. She puts on leather gloves and a flamethrower to set fire to the jewel of her own work, in vain.

Since its original release in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale turned into both a literary touchstone and a 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 an overthrown American government, the novel traces the fate of Offred, a servant or concubine forced to bear the offspring of powerful men. The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, translated into a 1990 feature film, a 2000 opera, a 2017 TV miniseries and even spawned Atwood’s sequel, the wills, published in 2019, sparking storms 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

Now 40% off

The unburnable book then, is literally indestructible, its physical form a metaphor for fringe voices as well as those whose opinions we abhor. Our First Amendment is a gift to the world, resonating from the 1915 Manhattan Suffrage March to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from Soweto to Tiananmen Square; and in the spirit of Atwood’s magnum opus, we must defend freedom of expression, period. Or as she observes: “I am very happy that the one of a kind unburnable book of The Handmaid’s Tale raised so much money for PEN America. Free speech issues are hotly debated, and PEN is a healthy voice amid all the cries. The video of the book being burned by me and refusing to burn has now had a potential five billion views. We hope this raises awareness and leads to reasoned discussion.

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Lola R. McClure