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A fireproof copy of 'Handmaid's Tale' auctioned for $130,000 to help fight book bans

Sotheby's is auctioning a special, fireproof copy of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel <em>The Handmaid's Tale</em>. Proceeds will go to support PEN America's work opposing book bans.
Sotheby's
Sotheby's is auctioning a special, fireproof copy of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. Proceeds will go to support PEN America's work opposing book bans.

Updated June 7, 2022 at 7:10 PM ET

Bidding on a special, fireproof copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ended on Tuesday afternoon, when the book was auctioned by Sotheby's for $130,000. Proceeds from the auction will go to PEN America's efforts to fight book banning.

In a promotional video for the auction, the 82-year-old Atwood tries, unsuccessfully, to burn the book with a flamethrower.

The Handmaid's Tale seems to be a favorite among those who fear the written word. The dystopian novel about misogyny and other dangers of oppression became a bestselling novel, an Emmy-winning TV show and a regular on banned book lists.

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

The number of attempts to ban books from schools and libraries surged last year. Among the findings in the recent report "Banned In The U.S.A.," PEN America tracked more than 1,586 instances of individual books being banned in 2021 and that book bans "have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states."

"In the face of a determined effort to censor and silence," says PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, "this unburnable book is an emblem of our collective resolve to protect books, stories and ideas from those who fear and revile them. We are thankful to be able to deploy the proceeds of this auction to fortify this unprecedented fight for books."

Sotheby's estimates The Unburnable Book will fetch $100,000 at auction. A spokesperson says it "feels like a regular book" even though it's made of fireproof material.

According to the book's designers, the special edition is printed on heat-resistant aluminum material, bound with nickel wire and stainless steel used in aerospace manufacturing, and printed with ink that won't be destroyed or degraded even when exposed to a temperature of 2200°F.

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

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.