On her Instagram account, famed author Margaret Atwood teased a video of herself taking a flamethrower to her classic dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”—yet it’s all for naught. The book, featuring a striking Noma Bar design of a red-cloaked woman, withstands the blaze and endures. That’s because it’s a one-of-a-kind “unburnable” copy, made of fireproof materials.
The special edition is now on auction at Sothebys New York, part of "The Unburnable Book" campaign with Penguin Random House to support Pen America, a nonprofit that defends free expression around the world. It was created out of Rethink, the North American agency behind buzzy campaigns for Heinz Ketchup, Kraft Mac & Cheese and more.
The current highest bid on the book is $48,000 USD, and the auction will end on June 7, with all proceeds going to support Pen America’s fight for free expression.
The campaign aims to raise awareness about the rising numbers of educational gag orders and book banning incidents around schools in the U.S. Pen America’s latest “Banned in the USA” report found 1,586 instances of individual books being banned across 86 school districts in 26 states. 19 states have passed laws or issued executive orders that prohibit teaching of certain subjects and ideas in public schools and colleges. The casualties of such censorship have largely been works around racism, gender and sexual orientation with many written by LGBTQ+ authors or those of color.
"I never thought I'd be trying to burn one of my own books—and failing,” said Atwood in a statement. “‘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.”
To create “The Unburnable Book,” Rethink teamed with Toronto-based bookbinding atelier The Gas Company. According to Robbie Percy, creative director at Rethink, the process of creating the book required “a lot of textile exploration and different options before landing on the final materials. At one point we were talking about making it all out of actual thick metal—it probably would’ve weighed about 50 pounds!”
Ultimately, the team wanted the final edition to function and feel like a regular book. Doug Laxdal, owner and principal at The Gas Company, came up with the idea to use Cinefoil, a material that’s used in film production to wrap hot lights. “It ended up being the perfect thing,” Percy said.
As for what it was like to collaborate with Atwood, “She was, as I’m sure you can imagine, awesome,” said Rethink Creative Director Caroline Friesen. “She was so excited about the project right from the start and had a ton of great ideas on how to bring it to life. She would also sometimes give feedback on the wording of things—and it’s pretty hard to argue when Margaret Atwood is tweaking your copy.
On set, Atwood also threw herself into the process. “She was really game for everything, including trying to light her own book with a flamethrower,” Percy said.