In 2015, Megan Rosenbloom traveled to the Houghton Library at Harvard University in search of a book called “Des destinées de l’âme” (“Destinations of the Soul”), by the French author Arsène Houssaye. This copy of Houssaye’s masterpiece had a singular distinction: at the time, it was the only book on the planet shown to be bound in human skin.
For Rosenbloom, a librarian at the University of California, Los Angeles, the trip served as a gateway to a field she had studied for years: “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” the practice of binding books on the human skin. It’s easy to assume that this topic is too narrow or scary for a book of its own, but “Dark Files: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin” shows that this assumption is incorrect. As Rosenbloom travels the globe to confirm the purported origins of leather-bound books, a detective story in itself, his journey offers unusual insight into what defines informed consent, what separates homage from exploitation, and how power disparities can breed casual inhumanity.
Books Covered in Human Skin Have Captivated Literary Audiences for Centuries: A Classic H.P. Lovecraft Tale Presents “a closed portfolio, bound in tanned human skin”, and a leather-bound volume propels the plot of Chuck Palahniuk’s 2002 novel “Lullaby.” Still, so far it seems that the impostor skin books outnumber the real ones. he anthropodermic book project, of which Rosenbloom is a member, has identified just 18 books to date that live up to its human-skin billing. (By claiming that a volume was bound in leather, booksellers of yore could increase their profit margins, creating ample incentive to lie.)
Authentic specimens, though rare, take on inordinate importance because they betray the human will to remove consent, and even personality, for aesthetic or supremacist purposes. The “very ordinary appearances” of the books, Rosenbloom writes, “mask the horror inherent in their creation.” Part of his goal in documenting the origins of anthropodermic books is to restore the dignity of those whose remains were sewn into bindings.
The blade of a doctor’s scalpel, Rosenbloom observes, was often the main instrument of this desecration. In the late 19th century, an upstart doctor named John Stockton Hough removed skin from the thighs of Mary Lynch, a woman who had died penniless from a combination of tuberculosis and trichinosis. Decades later, Hough, an avid book collector, used the preserved skin to cover several of his favorite books on female anatomy.
Other bibliophile doctors also helped themselves skin dead patients, sending the samples to professional tanners for preservation, a practice that revealed their lack of respect for their patients as human beings. The grotesque custom, Rosenbloom writes, embodied “the worst of what can emerge from the collision of greed and clinical detachment.”
While rumors persisted for decades about the provenance of books like Hough’s, it wasn’t until 2014 that a new analytical method allowed researchers to separate the actual anthropodermic books from the rest. The method, known as peptide mass fingerprinting, involves taking a small sample from a book cover, adding the enzyme trypsin to digest its contents, and placing the sample in a mass spectrometer to see which peptides or protein building blocks contains. Dry human skin can look a lot like bare goat or cow skin, but it has different peptides. (Because DNA degrades over time, DNA sequencing methods generally can’t tell if old book covers contain human skin.)
It was peptide mass fingerprinting, Rosenbloom explains, that enabled Harvard to verify that his copy of “Des destinées de l’âme” was leather-bound. The Houssaye volume belonged to the French doctor and bibliophile Ludovic Bouland, and people had speculated about it ever since a collector found a cryptic note inside. “A book on the human soul,” Bouland scribbled on one of the front papers, “deserves to be given human clothing.”
When the Houghton Library announced, in 2014, that peptide testing confirmed the book’s long-suspected origins, the internet raged in disgust. One reviewer opined that the only way forward was to remove the book’s cover and give it a proper burial. “The binding is a macabre shame,” wrote another. “Do you have vintage WWII lampshades, Harvard?”
But if you’re conjuring Third Reich bookcases wrapped in prisoners’ skin, you’re probably wrong. There is no concrete evidence that the Nazis actually created leather-bound volumes, Rosenbloom says, though, like certain bibliophiles, they had no qualms about looting the physical bodies of the less powerful. A widely told story about Buchenwald supervisors Karl-Otto Koch and his wife Ilse Koch claims they had a lampshade made of human skin, but the lampshade itself was never found.
Before becoming a librarian, Rosenbloom worked as a journalist and shows off her reporting skills in perfect descriptions of the seedy corners of the literary world. During a visit to a leather tannery to get an idea of how human skin might have been prepared for bookbinding, she is struck by a stench so pungent it seems from another world. “It wasn’t just a smell,” she writes. “It felt like raw animal organs were being shoved into my mouth and out my nose.” The stench gets so deep into her shoes that she has to throw them away. In another scene, she goes looking for a leather-bound book and is ambushed by a librarian with a centuries-old tattoo of a stuffed Jesus.
But while shock value may draw readers into the narrative, what sustains it is Rosenbloom’s incisive commentary on what contexts promote the inhumane treatment of human bodies, and how such conditions persist today. She remains relentless in the face of criticism of her motives, convincing us that delving into our darkest impulses is one of the surest ways to understand ourselves.
In an age focused on appearances, “Dark Archives” it also offers a timely reminder of just how much may be hiding beneath a seemingly tidy exterior. There are likely many more books on human skin “resting on library shelves, hidden in plain sight,” Rosenbloom writes. “Even if you were holding one right now, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell.”
This article was originally published on Undark. Read the Original article.
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