Dark Archives, by Megan Rosenbloom

To be completely reductive, there are two kinds of bibliophile. There is the kind that is completely repelled by the idea of anthropodermic bibliopegy: the practice of binding books in leather made from human skin. And then there is the kind like me, several of my colleagues, and Megan Rosenbloom. In Dark Archives, Rosenbloom takes us inside her obsession with and the history of this problematic (and thankfully very rare) side of bookbinding.

Now one of the founders of the Anthropodermic Book Project (which seeks to verify all claims of anthropodermic books), Rosenbloom’s fascination began early, while she was still in library school. On a visit to the notorious (and very much on my bucket list) Mütter Museum, Rosenbloom saw a small collection of books that the placards claimed were bound in human skin. Digging into the history of these books led Rosenbloom into a moment when casual medical ethics about collecting specimens collided with bibliophilia. A scant few doctors at the end of the nineteenth century would take samples of human skin from their patients. Some time later, the specimen would be tanned and used to bind a book.

Rosenbloom’s account rockets around from this origin story. She discovers books bound in the skin of prisoners, lots of rumors about human-skin bookbinding industries (thankfully false), and lots of very poor record keeping. Some of the claims about the origin of the book bindings come from short notes penciled inside the covers. Other times, it’s little more than word of mouth stories. Rosenbloom now travels across the United States and Europe collecting samples to be tested and verified as either human or not. Many readers may be relieved (or disappointed, depending on your disposition) to learn that most of the claims are wrong and the bindings are nothing more sinister than calfskin, goat, or sheepskin.

Dark Archives also contains a lot of Rosenbloom’s thoughts about the ethics of using human skin for leather. She points out that it’s perfectly normal, if unusual, for someone to donate their body to medical schools. More often, however, Rosenbloom uncovers a lot of unease about how we have legally and ethically thought about human remains and who can own them—or even if it’s possible to own human remains. Ultimately, Rosenbloom has to square how she herself feels about the practice. Should libraries own these books? Should anyone be allowed to sell them? Would she herself put an anthropodermic book on her shelves? Rosenbloom’s questioning leads readers to ask themselves the same questions.

Some readers might be annoyed to find that Dark Archives is more about ethics and medical history than it is about the provenance or appearance of anthropodermic books. It certainly wasn’t the book I was expecting. But I find that I’m not all that bothered by that. I enjoyed the opportunity to think about questions that I would never have asked myself before. For myself, I think that if I ever encountered an anthropodermic book in real life, I would get a serious case of the willies.

3 thoughts on “Dark Archives, by Megan Rosenbloom

  1. Well that’s something I certainly never though about before, either. I have to say my curiosity is: of the few books really bound that way, what were the contents? Literature, fiction, blank pages to be written on, some dry nonfiction or treatise?

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    • Mostly medical texts, interestingly enough. Some philosophy. There was one autobiography of a criminal bound in the criminal’s skin after he was hanged. I think that was my favorite chapter because the criminal actually asked for this to be done with his remains.

      Rosenbloom’s Project tested a number of occult books rumored to be bound in human skin, but the results debunked the tales.

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  2. The criminal one- i just don’t know what to think. Reminds me of a scene in a fantasy book I read as a kid, where the main character saw a strange skin stretched on a wall- it was from a criminal. I never forgot the description of that scene, it was so unsettling.

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