Tuesday, January 10


The Times Argus bares one of secrets of the world's most prestigious libraries: They own books bound in human skin.

M.L. Johnson writes that Brown University has one such book, a "1568 edition of Belgian surgeon Andreas Vesalius' 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica.' For centuries, this was a primary anatomy text and it's still being used by classes up to now. The said volume is "[t]anned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather."

Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland, says that binding books in human leather was a "relatively cheap, durable and waterproof" way of covering one's books.

What's also interesting is the texture of these book covers. I didn't know that the human skin can still be separated into layers. One such book was "The Dance of Death" which dates to 1816 but was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. He didn't have enough skin, so he split it. The front cover was "bound in the outer layer of the epidermis, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer of skin, feels like suede." And if you looked close enough, you could still see the pores of the skin's former owner.

However widespread the practice was, at least until the late 1800s, it wasn't something discussed in polite society. Most human leather-bound books are medical related; the leather most probably acquired from cadavers in med school, unclaimed bodies of the poor or from criminals who were executed. It could also be a way of somehow achieving immortality, as in the case of the Arab man who had his Quran bound in his own skin when he died. Hartman said, "People kept their family histories written in Bibles, and what is a Quran?"

All I can say is: Ewan McGregor, is that you? Someone please hand me my moisturizer.


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