The fascinating story behind the making of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Unburnable Book’
Books burn, but not this one.
Since August 2021, over 1,500 books have been banned from U.S. school districts, most of them focused on people of color. To raise awareness of the growing number of book burnings and bans in this country, Penguin Random House has partnered with legendary author Margaret Atwood to create a single, fireproof edition of her dystopian novel (and often banned) The Handmaid’s Tale. “The Unburnable Book” was sewn and bound by hand and made from a variety of fireproof materials that were put to the test with a torch, even left in a burning BBQ for half an hour. As stunts go, it’s a pretty incendiary one.
The burn-proof edition was designed by creative ad agency Rethink and made by the Gas Company, a Toronto-based firm that has made books with pages that change color under UV light and covers made out of thin concrete slabs. “We make a lot of unusual projects,” says Gas Company owner Doug Laxdal. “We’ve never done anything fireproof before.”
The book’s star material is something called Cinefoil. When Laxdal picks up a sheet of it to show me over FaceTime, I can hear it crumple like kitchen foil. That’s because it consists of an ultra-thin aluminum sheet sandwiched between a high temperature-rated coating.
As the name suggests, Cinefoil is typically used in the movie industry to mask lights and eliminate unwanted reflections. Here, a matte, black version makes up the dust jacket. Meanwhile, the pages of the book were printed on white Cinefoil: half as thick as regular paper, but thick enough to go through the firm’s existing printer. Laxdal says it did jam the machine a couple of times, but as a bonus, the aluminum made the edges of the book look like they’re gilded in silver. (Considering the crumpling sound it made when Laxdal picked it up, it seems likely that each page would crinkle every time you turned it, though I suspect this isn’t the kind of book that’s meant to be read at a coffee shop.)
Unsurprisingly, every other material in the book has metal in it, too: The hard cover is made of Phenolic, a rigid kind of resin you’d see if you dismantled a stereo, says Laxdal. The head and tail bands—a detail often used at the top and bottom of a spine in quality hardcover books—are made of really fine, woven stainless-steel thread. And the whole thing is bound together with nickel wire, like the kind you might use to make jewelry. Because of all the metal, Laxdal says the book is “considerably heavier” than a regular book and comes in at about three pounds.
The book was completed about two weeks ago and is now being auctioned online by Sotheby’s New York. At the time of this writing, the bid is at $70,000, but you have until June 7 to put in a bid; all proceeds will go to PEN America. Laxdal didn’t reveal how much it cost his company to make, though he did mention “it was not inexpensive.”
And no wonder: “It’s a completely handmade Handmaid’s Tale,” he says.