Despite its ubiquity in our media and news cycle, death remains a taboo subject in the United States. Unless raised in a culture or religion that employs open casket viewings at funerals or part of a field that requires cadavers as educational tools, few Americans interact with the dead – American culture staves off acknowledgement of our own mortality. Megan Rosenbloom seeks to disrupt our reluctance to look death in the eye. Or, in the case of her new book Dark Archives, in the pages.
As the University of California, Los Angeles Collection Strategies Librarian, Rosenbloom entwines her professional capacity with her leadership in the Death Positive movement, which seeks to openly confront mortality and reconceptualise humanity’s relationship to death. Given her credentials, her project on anthropodermic books – that is, books bound in human skin – seems intuitive. But as Dark Archive: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin details, Rosenbloom’s interest in such literature did not happen overnight.
Anthropodermic books are exceedingly rare. Any study therefore has the potential to reveal groundbreaking evidence that may shift our understanding of the materials’ history. Rosenbloom embarks from this premise, and travels from libraries and museums across the United States and Europe to artisan tanneries where she researches the process of utilising human skin in bookbinding. Her investigation spans centuries and geographies, legends and fact.
As one might guess given our species’ morbid curiosity, tall tales from the French Revolution through Nazi Germany litter the history of book binding practices. False claims and misconceptions regarding the use of specific groups of people – including women, poor classes, and people of colour – likewise vary in their veracity. However, as Rosenbloom states, even rumours are worthwhile to analyse: “While sifting out the truth from the rumours and innuendo, we can’t forget that sometimes rumours are the only dissemination method available to the powerless, and innuendo is the coded speech wherein those in power can allude to the unspeakable.” Indeed, the ethical problem of these books has sparked a contentious debate in the world of librarianship.
There is no consensus among librarians of what to do with confirmed anthropodermic books; approaches are as diverse as the books themselves. Whereas some are keen on studying these books, others remain wary. Some even advocate for the books’ destruction, effectively putting their humans to rest. Through the lens of books bound in human skin, Rosenbloom herself concludes, “It is my job—and my privilege—to help cultivate multiple ways of thinking about our relationships with our bodies.” Due to their gruesome nature, we assume anthropodermic books were created by the most evil among us: Nazis, serial killers, blood-lusting bibliophiles. Dark Archives’s exploration of these books’ ethics, however, exposes the mundane readers who created them, such as the nineteenth-century doctors who had access to the requisite materials. Rosenbloom’s investigation further illustrates the parallel lines along which the histories of anthropodermic books and medicine run. The gradual social and legal acceptance of anatomical dissection developed out of similar ethical questions. In a roundabout way, Rosenbloom notes, the infamous body-snatching murderers Burke and Hare were essential to conversations of whose bodies were morally acceptable for such work.
Reminiscent of Mary Roach, Rosenbloom’s tone is inquisitive and, at turns, morbidly funny and deeply contemplative. Often, her histories are concurrently solemn and amusing, as is the case of George Walton, an affable criminal with a knack for escaping from prison. On his deathbed, Walton requested that his body be used to bind books. His skin now covers two books. Rosenbloom sustains Dark Archives with thought-provoking accounts like these throughout, presenting various histories and perspectives with respect, sensibility and, yes, humour. At its best, Dark Archives is a personal examination of our own post-mortem afterlives and their muddy ethical waters. She delicately walks her reader through her own position, arguing that though we cannot stop past bindings, we can nevertheless learn from what they’ve left us and honour them by preservation.
We can revel with a morbid gaze at the strangeness of anthropodermic books, but Rosenbloom’s investigation forces readers to reflect on our own relationship to medicine and exploitation of the dead. And as Rosenbloom takes pains to emphasise, death doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. At least not all the time.
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Image credit: S. Pinaeus, De integritatis et corruptionis virginum… Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)