Atwood responds to book bans with ‘unburnable’ edition of Handmaid’s Tale

Auction of fire-resistant edition comes ahead of an expected US supreme court ruling reversing the right to abortion

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 her 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 put.”

Her “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”.


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Atwood to launch The Handmaid’s Tale sequel with live broadcast
Exclusive: Author’s interview about The Testaments will be filmed at National Theatre in London

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

07, Mar, 2019 @7:00 PM

Article image
More bans and creative clinics: the future of abortion access in a post-Roe US
The federal right to abortion ended in 2022 – where does that leave people seeking to terminate a pregnancy going forward?

Poppy Noor in New York

27, Dec, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel escapes from tight secrecy
Strict measures meant to keep all details of The Testaments confidential until publication have fallen through for some US readers

Alison Flood

04, Sep, 2019 @2:17 PM

Article image
How The Handmaid's Tale dressed protests across the world
The red-and-white costume from Margaret Atwood’s novel has been donned by women from Ireland to Argentina

Peter Beaumont and Amanda Holpuch

03, Aug, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Kylie Jenner’s party was stupid. But it won’t curtail the power of The Handmaid’s Tale | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Celebs can drink their Gilead cocktails. Margaret Atwood’s story remains a pertinent warning about misogyny’s mission creep, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

12, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Margaret Atwood says Handmaid's Tale TV show profits went to MGM, not her
Author says she ‘did not have a negotiating position’, after selling on the rights of her novel to MGM for a 1990 film, which the studio retained

Sian Cain

01, Feb, 2018 @6:33 PM

Article image
More Handmaid's Tale sequels? 'Never say never', says Margaret Atwood
Canadian author of The Testaments refuses to rule it out, saying she was pushed to writing the sequel by US moves to police women’s bodies

Alison Flood

10, Sep, 2019 @1:23 PM

Article image
Margaret Atwood: will Alias Grace repeat the TV success of The Handmaid’s Tale?
Atwood’s 19th-century murder story is another prescient study of women in a patriarchal society

Alex Clark

04, Nov, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Margaret Atwood is right to have the last word on The Handmaid’s Tale | Stephanie Merritt
News of a sequel has divided fans, but better this than letting the TV adaptation decide Offred’s fate, says author Stephanie Merritt

Stephanie Merritt

30, Nov, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Orwell and Atwood books given away to encourage readers to 'fight back!'
A mystery benefactor in San Francisco has given away bulk copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale to bolster resistance to the new US regime

Danuta Kean

07, Feb, 2017 @4:37 PM