Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

Megan Rosenbloom. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-13470-9
UCLA librarian Rosenbloom debuts with a fascinating and sober-minded exploration of the history, methodology, and ethics of anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin. She details the loosely regulated professional realm of the 19th-century doctors who used skin from medical cadavers to create most of the world’s known anthropodermic books, and embarks on a transatlantic search for specimens, including multiple copies of 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and a 19th-century highwayman’s memoir bound in the author’s own skin (per his pre-execution request). Rosenbloom’s conversational tone and obvious excitement at the thrill of the chase counterbalances the macabre nature of her subject. While she believes in the value of preserving anthropodermic books in order to “reckon with... the culture in which they were created,” she interviews skeptics, including Princeton librarian Paul Needham, who advocates strongly for their interment. Lighter moments, such as a visit to an artisanal tanning facility that results in the destruction of Rosenbloom’s Keds, make her obsession with the sometimes gruesome stories behind these books relatable. This unique and well-researched account shines an intriguing light on a hidden corner of the rare books world. Agent: Anna Sproul-Latimer, Neon Literary. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/23/2020
Release date: 10/20/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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