How a book ban protest led to a fireproof edition of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale

Author Margaret Atwood uses a flamethrower near a nonflammable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale.-/AFP/Getty Images

To build a book that won’t burn, Jeremy Martin and Doug Laxdal’s first idea was to use flame-retardant paper for the pages. your graphics company Ordered samples and got to work with a BIC lighter.

Unfortunately, the pages were burning – slowly but still. They had to find an alternative. And they had less than three months to do it.

“When it comes to projects like this, you don’t get a second chance,” says Mr. Martin, production manager at the Gas Company.

The Toronto company was asked to create a fireproof edition of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The story of the maid as part of a protest against literary censorship. Sotheby’s is in the process of auctioning the book in New York to raise money for PEN America, which is leading the charge against book bans and so-called educational gag orders. A recent report by the organization found that between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 1,586 cases of single book bans were identified in 86 school districts in 26 states.

The campaign was launched at Monday night’s PEN Gala, held under the giant blue whale model at the Museum of Natural History in New York, with a video of Ms. Atwood throwing a flamethrower at her non-flammable book (actually a prototype) leads.

“Because powerful words can never be erased,” read an on-screen caption. The people in the room cheered.

“The sight of Margaret Atwood brandishing a blowtorch at the screen just got everyone excited,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, told The Globe and Mail. “There’s just something about this incombustible book concept that I think captures the moment and the determination we all feel to withstand an attack. And so people were just electrified.”

A non-burnable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is currently being auctioned to raise awareness of book censorship in American schools.-/AFP/Getty Images

The plan was hatched over the winter amid headline-grabbing book bans in the US, including Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir, Mouse, which was banned by in January a school board in Tennessee.

Caroline Friesen and Robbie Percy, creative directors at Toronto agency Rethink, approached Penguin Random House with the idea of ​​creating a non-flammable copy of The story of the maida frequently banned book.

“The object of The story of the maid definitely makes it appropriate; it’s about those themes of censorship and the silence of voices,” says Mr. Percy of the dystopian novel set in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, all along.”

The proposal was presented to the editor during a conference call in early February.

“I knew Margaret would love the idea because she cares and because she loves mischievous things,” says McClelland & Stewart editor Jared Bland. He then pitched the idea to Ms. Atwood, who immediately jumped on board.

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Sotheby’s has agreed to auction the book online (it will be on display in person at Sotheby’s New York). The bid had reached $65,000 as of Wednesday night; the online auction ends on June 7th. Funds raised will go to PEN America at Ms. Atwood’s request.

“I hardly recognize my own country,” Ms. Nossel said in an interview from New York. “I feel like the soul of the nation is at stake. It was disturbing for us, electrifying and we are involved with everything we have.”

The clever concept was one thing. Making it happen was another.

After Rethink approached the Gas Company, Mr. Martin and company owner Mr. Laxdal set to work. “He’s one of those guys who loves to solve problems,” says Mr. Percy.

When the flame-retardant paper didn’t work, they ended up – after some experimentation – on non-reflective aluminum foil paper coated on both sides. Not only was it non-flammable, but it could be fed through the company’s printer without being damaged.

The book also needed a cover. You ordered fire retardant cloth from Amazon. But like the flame retardant paper, it burned.

They again chose tin foil for the cover, this time black. But they needed material for the board itself. They ended up using phenol, a substance that can withstand intense heat. Holding it with a lighter—and one of those little torches you use to make crème brûlée—it stayed intact.

Next challenge: staple the book together. Thread, the usual material, would burn. At a craft store, they bought metal wire—the kind of thing you could thread beads onto to make a bracelet.

Jeremy Martin got to work, hand-stitching 16-page sections of the book (called “signatures”) together. Twenty-four signatures were combined en route to create the 384-page book.

The wire that came loose from the spool would get small kinks, and under a looming deadline the book had to get on a flight to New York The next morning – Mr. Martin struggled to pull it through the holes that were hand punched during the process.

It took him six and a half hours to sew. It was 7 p.m., but the book was still not finished; it had to be cut to size. At this point things got really tense, says Mr. Martin.

“That was a big, fat book. I had no idea what was going to happen when I put it in this cutter. It was possible that the clamp pressure might fuse it into a brick or it might fall apart,” he recalls.

“So I put it in the cutter and said a little prayer and cut it.” Deep breath. “And it cut beautifully.”

The printing actually improved the look of the book, making it “nice and square,” said Mr. says Martin. And when they sheared the edges from the paper, the silver of the foil was exposed. “Automatically gilded edges.”

They added stainless steel bands for decorative head and tail straps – ordered from an electronics supplier, and so fabric-like they feared it would burn. (It has not.)

The finished book was handed over to Rethink at 10:30 p.m. on May 18, less than 12 hours before Ms. Friesen’s flight to New York. “I wanted to cry,” says Mr. Martin. The next morning he took the day off.

If anything, the book looked almost too authentic, he says; it could only be distinguished from the original by the silver side edges. But the weight gives it away.

And of course there is another difference.

“Absolutely nothing in this book will burn,” says Martin. “If you put a flamethrower on top of that, it would smoke a little and smell a little. But it would still be a readable book.”

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