Kanigel, a professor of science writing at MIT, whose biography of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle and L.A. Times Book awards, offers a study of leather-its history, chemistry and place in human culture-and the corollary story of the effort to develop a synthetic substitute. Despite its millennia-long presence in human history, and the many substitutes that have been tried-Fabrikoid, Corfam and Naugahyde among them-the subject doesn't sustain interest. Kanigel is a sound researcher and an engaging writer, offering an abundance of facts, for example, the Smithsonian's leather boots made of human skin (their origin is not nefarious and they are not on display) and the availability of vegan condoms. And Kanigel brings drama to Du Pont's decadelong search for a synthetic leather; the resulting Corfam-hailed as being as revolutionary as nylon-was a failure as infamous as the Edsel. The author falters, however, with dull descriptions of the chemical processes used to create various synthetic products. PETA gets some attention, and Kanigel intelligently takes time to address the philosophical question of the importance of faux versus real.