'Handmaid's Tale' Waitlists Surge In Libraries Across America

As reproductive rights continue to come under threat, readers flock to Margaret Atwood's dystopian warning.
Alexis Bledel appears as a Handmaid in Hulu's adaption of The Handmaid's Tale.
Alexis Bledel appears as a Handmaid in Hulu's adaption of The Handmaid's Tale.
Take Five/Hulu

If you had casual plans to check out a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, we have some bad news: The waitlists are almost as daunting as the author’s dystopian vision for the future.

Hundreds of Handmaid’s Tale fans in New York City are waiting to get their hands on Atwood’s novel, soon to hit Hulu as an adapted TV series starring Elizabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes and Alexis Bledel, according to a recent report from Patch verified by The Huffington Post.

In February, readers placed 183 holds on 64 copies of the book at the New York Public Library alone. By March, the NYPL added 32 more copies of the book into circulation, and the number of holds jumped to 534.

“As of today, there are currently 546 holds on 96 copies of The Handmaid’s Tale,” a NYPL representative told HuffPost on Monday. “For background, according to our online catalog, there aren’t other dystopian titles with the same level of checkouts or holds.”

The NYPL isn’t the only public library experiencing a surge in demand for The Handmaid’s Tale, which recently rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. According to the Chicago Public Library’s website, there seem to be four of 160 paperback copies of the book available to check out, though there are currently 63 holds on six other copies and 318 holds on 81 available ebooks. The San Francisco Public Library presents a similar backlog; there are 101 holds on 54 physical copies and 283 holds on 65 ebooks. The Houston Public Library boasts zero available physical copies.

Demand for the book shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Atwood’s 1985 novel is set in a near-future, totalitarian U.S. civilization called the Republic of Gilead, which is built on Christian fundamentalist values and fixated on the declining birthrate of its population. The story is told from the perspective of Offred, a “Handmaid” suddenly forced to abandon her relatively free life in order to have sex with, and produce children for, a high-ranking man whose wife is infertile. Offred is one of a number of Handmaids subjected to the reproductive rights nightmare that unfurls.

A description of The Handmaid’s Tale on the Houston Public Library’s website characterizes it as “a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast.” It continues:

In condensed but eloquent prose, by turns cool-eyed, tender, despairing, passionate, and wry, she reveals to us the dark corners behind the establishment’s calm facade, as certain tendencies now in existence are carried to their logical conclusions.

As many critics and fans ― and even Atwood herself ― have remarked, this story feels more relevant to American politics than ever. Just last month, a group of women activists made sure the parallel was clear by wearing Handmaid’s Tale–style red robes to the Texas Senate in protest of the anti-abortion bills being considered. (Ed. note: HuffPost reporter Catherine Pearson is attempting to keep up with the dizzying array of abortion-related bills in the U.S.)

The NYPL did not speculate as to which factors have contributed to the book’s increase in popularity. Earlier in 2017, the waitlist for George Orwell’s 1984 surged, prompting the library to recommend a slew of other dystopian books, including the Atwood classic now sprinting off shelves. New York Times writer Alexandra Alter surmises that Americans turning to dystopia may be doing so as a response to the uneasy feelings some have felt after the election of President Donald Trump.

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