NEW YORK – Margaret Atwood imagined an apocalyptic catastrophe, an anti-utopian government and an author who imitates her own death. But until recently, she had rid herself of the nightmare of trying to burn one of her books.

With a flamethrower, no less.

She failed, and that was the case.

On Monday night, timed to coincide with the annual PEN America gala, Atwood and Penguin Random House announced that a one-time, unburned edition of The Maid’s Tale would be sold at Sotheby’s New York auction. They launched the initiative with a short video showing Atwood trying in vain to burn his classic novel about a totalitarian patriarchate, the Republic of Gilead. Proceeds will be donated to PEN, which advocates free expression around the world.

“In the category of things you never expected, this is one of them,” she said in a telephone interview.

“Seeing her classic novel about the dangers of oppression being revived in this innovative, unburned edition is a timely reminder of what is at stake in the fight against censorship,” said Marcus Dole, CEO of Penguin Random House.


The refractory narrative is a joint project of PEN, Atwood, Penguin Random House and two companies based in Toronto, where Atwood is a longtime resident: Rethink Creative Agency and The Gas Company Inc., a graphics and binding studio.

Robbie Percy of Rethink said the idea came up with him and his fellow creative director Caroline Friesen. Late last year, they heard about a Texas lawmaker who listed hundreds of works that could be banned in school libraries: Percy and Friesen wondered if it was possible to make a book protected from the most painful censorship. They soon agreed on A Maid’s Tale, which came out in the 1980s and has attracted attention again over the past few years, beginning with Donald Trump’s political upsurge and unexpected presidency and continuing the current surge in book bans.


“We thought the symbol could be an incombustible copy of The Maid’s Tale,” he said.

Percy and Friesen spoke with Atwood publishers in Canada and the United States – both divisions of Penguin Random House – and contacted the author. They then contacted Gaslight, which worked on numerous custom texts, including for PEN.

The main owner of the gas company, Doug Laxdale, told the AP that instead of paper he and his colleagues used Cinefoil, a specially treated aluminum. It took more than two months to write the 384-page text, which can be read as a regular novel. It took the gas company days just to print the manuscript; Cinefoil sheets were so thin that some of them disappeared through cracks in the printer and were damaged without being repairable. The manuscript was then sewn by hand using copper-nickel wire.

“The only way to destroy this book is with a chopper,” says Laxdale. “Otherwise it will take a very long time.”


Atwood told the AP that she was immediately interested in a special edition and video creation. She was a teenager in the 1950s when Ray Bradbury’s “451 Fahrenheit” was published, and she retains vivid memories of the novel’s futuristic setting in which books turn to ashes.

“The Maid’s Tale” was never burned, as far as Atwood knows, but was often banned or attempted to be banned. Atwood remembers an attempt in 2006 in a Texas high school district when the headmaster called her book “sexually explicit and offensive to Christians,” which ended when students successfully fought back. In 2021, The Maid’s Story was discontinued by schools in Texas and Kansas.

The novel has sold millions of copies, and its impact is not only through words but also images reinforced by the award-winning film adaptation of Hulu with Elizabeth Moss in the lead role. Defenders of women’s rights around the world have dressed in the Puritan robes that Atwood came up with for her story. Most recently, some women in maid clothes marched in protest of this year’s Supreme Court’s overturning of Rowe v. Wade’s 1973 ruling, which legalized abortion across the country.


“It’s an unforgettable visual metaphor,” Atwood said. “Therefore, in the Middle Ages, people wore coats of arms on their armor and had identification flags. That way you can visualize them and know who’s behind it. “

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