Why Rethink gave Margaret Atwood a flamethrower to fight book bans

Who: PEN America and Penguin Random House, with Rethink for strategy and creative, along with Margaret Atwood, The Gas Compay Inc. for book production, and Asymetric for video production (directed by Brooks Reynolds)

What: “The Unburnable Book,” a special edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to raise awareness about the disturbing rise of book banning in the U.S., and to raise money for free-speech advocates PEN. As the name suggests, the book is made of fireproof materials.

When & Where: The book was introduced at a PEN America Literary Gala in New York City on Monday, and is being auctioned through Sotheby’s until June 7. There’s no paid media behind this one, but when you have Margaret Atwood wielding a flamethrower to make a point about book banning, you don’t need to pay for media—the story has generated plenty of coverage this week from The Globe and Mail and CBC, to People, USA Today and The Guardian.

Why: Not long ago, book banning and burning was most associated with fascist states and authoritarian rulers. But according to PEN’s recent “Banned in the USA” report, book banning has been “expanding rapidly” in the U.S. Between July and this March, PEN counted 1,145 books that were banned across 86 school districts in 26 states, affecting more than 2 million students.

Many of the banned works are about racism, gender, and sexual orientation, often by authors of colour and LGBTQ+ writers, being used to teach students about social inequality, history, and sexuality.

To raise awareness and money to fight the problem, Rethink worked with Atwood and Penguin Random House to create the unburnable copy of Atwood’s oft-banned novel about a dystopian U.S.A.

“We are at an urgent moment in our history, with ideas and truth—the foundations of our democracy—under attack,” said Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle in a release. “Few writers have been as instrumental in the fight for free expression as Margaret Atwood. To see her classic novel about the dangers of oppression reborn in this innovative, unburnable edition is a timely reminder of what’s at stake in the battle against censorship.”

How: Rethink creative directors Caroline Friesen and Robbie Percy came up with the idea, and worked with Toronto-based graphic arts and book specialists The Gas Company to create a special copy of the book using fireproof materials, such as “white heat shield foil pages,” for example.

The book was introduced at the PEN Gala, and is being auctioned off by Sotheby’s. They estimated that the winning bid will be between $50,000 and $100,000, with the current high bid (as of Thursday afternoon) at $70,000.

“In the face of a determined effort to censor and silence, this unburnable book is an emblem of our collective resolve to protect books, stories and ideas from those who fear and revile them,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel.

There is also a website explaining the book, and Rethink created a promotional video featuring Atwood using a flamethrower to demonstrate just how fireproof the book is. “Because powerful words can never be extinguished,” reads the super as the famous author attempts to torch her novel.

“I never thought I’d be trying to burn one of my own books… and failing,” said Atwood in the 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. Let’s hope we don’t reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451. 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. ”

And we quote: “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need an unburnable book. But in the face of the current wave of censorship, we hope this one-of-a-kind edition of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel can serve as both a reminder of the importance of protecting freedom of expression and a catalyst for change.” — Rethink creative directors Caroline Friesen and Robbie Percy

David Brown