Margaret Atwood fights book burning with fireproof copy of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

A video released by Penguin Random House shows the writer using a flamethrower on a special edition of her bestseller

The 'unburnable' edition is printed on fire-resistant paper and bound with a flame retardant cover
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Acclaimed author Margaret Atwood is fighting back against book burning.

In a video released by publisher Penguin Random House on Tuesday, Atwood, 82, is shown using a flamethrower on a fire-proof edition of her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

"I never thought I'd be trying to burn one of my own books... and failing," Atwood said. "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."

"Let's hope we don't reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451. 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."

Called “The Unburnable Book”, it is printed on fire-resistant paper, bound with a flame retardant cover and features well-known imagery by designer Noma Bar. The one-off, special edition will be on exhibition at Sotheby's New York from Friday, June 3 until it goes on auction on Tuesday, June 7.

Proceeds from the sale will go to Pen America, an organisation that battles the censorship of books.

“To see her classic novel about the dangers of oppression reborn in this innovative, unburnable edition is a timely reminder of what’s at stake in the battle against censorship,” said Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, to the Associated Press.

The Handmaid’s Tale has never been burnt, as far as Atwood knows, but has often been subjected to bans or attempted bans. Atwood remembers a 2006 effort in one Texas high school district, when the superintendent called her book “sexually explicit and offensive to Christians,” that ended when students successfully fought back.

In 2021, The Handmaid’s Tale was pulled by schools in Texas and Kansas.

The novel has sold millions of copies and its impact is not only through words, but images, amplified by the award-winning Hulu TV adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss. Advocates worldwide for women’s rights have dressed in the puritanical caped robes Atwood devised for her story.

Most recently, some women in handmaid outfits marched to protest the Supreme Court’s expected overturning this year of Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that legalised abortion in the US.

— Additional reporting by AP

Updated: May 11, 2023, 6:18 AM