When first published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale drew acclaim for how it combined and made new the genre conventions of the dystopian, historical, and fantasy novel. But the book has enjoyed its greatest fame in the past decade, thanks in part to a 2017 adaptation on Hulu and a sequel, The Testaments, published two years thereafter. It’s even become prominent in mass culture, frequently referenced in discussions of real-life politics and society in the manner of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451.
Like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury’s famous works, The Handmaid’s Tale also seems at risk of becoming less often read than publicly referenced — and therefore, no small amount of the time, publicly misinterpreted. The only way to fortify yourself against such abuse of literature is, of course, actually to read the book. Fortunately, The Handmaid’s Tale is now widely available, unlike certain books in certain places that have been subject to bans. It is against such banning that the latest edition of Atwood’s novel stands, printed and bound using only fireproof materials.
“Across the United States and around the world, books are being challenged, banned, and even burned,” says publisher Penguin Random House. “So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades.” This uniquely “unburnable” Handmaid’s Tale “will be presented for auction by Sotheby’s New York from May 23 to June 7 with all proceeds going to benefit PEN America’s work in support of free expression.” You can bid on it at Sotheby’s site, where as of this writing the price stands at USD $70,000.
Penguin has experimented with physically metaphorical books before: the paperback edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, whose cover becomes less “censored” with use. More recently, the graphic design studio Super Terrain published Fahrenheit 451, its title long a byword for book-burning, that only becomes readable with the application of heat. But it’s Ballantine’s 1953 special edition of that novel, “bound in Johns-Manville quinterra, an asbestos material with exceptional resistance to pyrolysis,” that truly set the precedent for this one-off Handmaid‘s tale. Those making bids certainly understand the book’s place in today’s cultural debates — but let’s hope they also intend to read it.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.