Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic:
Surely, you've seen our recent work on anthropodermic bibliopegy, the early modern practice of binding books in human skin?
No? Well, a quick refresher: some books, since the 16th century but before our own time, were bound in human skin. Why? “The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted,” Harvard librarian Heather Cole explained, “or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”
Anyway, we know it happened because people refer to it happening in the literature of the time, and also because some books bore inscriptions that literally said that they were bound in skin.
But such tomes are suspect. You can't just trust anyone who says they've bound a book in human skin. For example, one had this inscription, but turned out to bestupid sheepskin:
The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it.
And so, I am happy to report, the Houghton Library's copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame “is without a doubt bound in human skin,” Cole, who is the assistant curator of modern nooks and manuscripts at the library, reports in a new blog post.