In the promotional video, author Margaret Atwood holds a flamethrower in her hand, then aims it at a book. It is her own book. The flame shoots out but the book remains unharmed. Atwood’s publisher, Random House, is using this video to promote the fireproof copy of one of Atwood’s most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale. The unburnable edition was auctioned by Sotheby’s on June 7. Atwood wrote her famous dystopian novel in 1985, creating a world in which religious fanatics take over the United States in a coup and establish a new God-fearing state called Gilead, in which women no longer have any rights.
The book has an open ending but when it was published, it offended many readers anyway and continues to do so today. According to the American Library Association, The Handmaid’s Tale is among the books most often banned in US schools for, among other things, its “vulgar” and “sexually explicit” content and for “insulting Christianity.” These are criticisms Atwood has repeatedly rejected. In a 2006 open letter to a school district that wanted to ban the book, she wrote: “First of all, I’m struck by the remark, ‘insulting Christians.’ Nowhere in the book is the regime identified as Christian. As far as sexual explicitness goes, it is far less interested in sex than much of the Bible.”
The banning and destruction of inconvenient books and writing is part of human history. As early as the third century, the Roman emperor Diocletian gave orders to burn the writings of Christians. The Christians themselves were also active in their own right. For example, according to the Bible, the Apostle Paul, on his missionary journey to Ephesus, converted the resident magicians to Christianity and they then voluntarily burned their books on a pyre. Book burnings are a very effective means for rulers to show how they deal with dissenting opinions. The book burnings of the National Socialists in Germany demonstrated this.
In May and June 1933, tens of thousands of books and writings were burned in an “action against the un-German spirit” initiated by the German Student Union. Books continued to be burned in Germany after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was pulp journals and so-called trash literature that were set alight. This included the youth magazine Bravo, which cautiously provided sex education to the children of prudish post-war Germany. In China, anti-communist books were burned after the Communist Party took power. In Chile, books by the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez were burned under the Pinochet regime. In Muslim countries, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie were destroyed for “blasphemy.” The Harry Potter series of novels were the target of Christian fanatics in several US states in the early 2000s and were torched because they allegedly held content relating to “witchcraft, Satanic stuff and instructions for sorcery.” Book burnings take place all over the world. Even now, during the Russian war on Ukraine, books are being burned as part of the destruction of Ukrainian cultural identity. The flame-retardant edition was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York, with the proceeds — $1,30,000 — going to the writers’ association PEN America for its work promoting free expression. At the annual PEN Gala in New York on May 23, writer and actress Faith Salie, who moderated the evening, said that the unburnable book “was made to withstand not only the fire-breathing censors and blazing bigots, but actual flames — the ones they would like to use to burn down our democracy.”