A Look at Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Christine Jacobson in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WHEN I FIRST held a book bound in human skin, the little hairs on my neck did not stand up, and chills did not run down my spine. The book looked unremarkable; its pale-yellow binding blended in with its antiquarian neighbors on the shelf. I was holding Des Destinées de l’âme (Destiny of the Soul) by philosopher Arsène Houssaye and standing in the bowels of Houghton Library, Harvard’s rare book and manuscript repository. As a graduate student, I had been hired to truck material between the underground stacks and the reading room, where researchers came from all over the world to pore over the library’s collections. Not long after I arrived, Harvard announced that the 19th-century philosophical treatise I held in my hands was the first proven example using peptide mass fingerprinting of anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin. (Human: anthropos; skin: derma; book: biblion; fasten: pegia.) At my first opportunity, I stole away on a break to get a look at the volume. Holding the book didn’t give me goosebumps, but it did raise many questions. Whose skin was this? What kind of person would bind a book in human skin? And why?

Megan Rosenbloom has spent the last six years pursuing answers to those questions. The results of her efforts are compiled in Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Readers who relish the “dark academia” vibes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or the historical medical accuracy of The Knick will love spending time in Rosenbloom’s company, though the book holds broader appeal as well.

More here.