Author: Megan Rosenbloom
Publication date: October 20, 2020
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
I must preface this review with a few disambiguations: Yes, this is a book about books bound in human skin. Yes, those actually existed. No, they were not purely a “Nazi thing.” No, they were not a product of bizarre serial killers; they were in fact often the work of doctors seeking to create valuable books. And yes, I found this book absolutely fascinating.
(Also, yes, this is the second nonfiction book review in a row from me–I promise, this is vastly different from the last one I posted, and there’s plenty of fiction coming soon!)
On bookshelves around the world, surrounded by ordinary books bound in paper and leather, rest other volumes of a distinctly strange and grisly sort: those bound in human skin. Would you know one if you held it in your hand?
In Dark Archives, Megan Rosenbloom seeks out the historic and scientific truths behind anthropodermic bibliopegy—the practice of binding books in this most intimate covering. Dozens of such books live on in the world’s most famous libraries and museums. Dark Archives exhumes their origins and brings to life the doctors, murderers, and indigents whose lives are sewn together in this disquieting collection. Along the way, Rosenbloom tells the story of how her team of scientists, curators, and librarians test rumored anthropodermic books, untangling the myths around their creation and reckoning with the ethics of their custodianship.
A librarian and journalist, Rosenbloom is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a cofounder of their Death Salon, a community that encourages conversations, scholarship, and art about mortality and mourning. In Dark Archives—captivating and macabre in all the right ways—she has crafted a narrative that is equal parts detective work, academic intrigue, history, and medical curiosity: a book as rare and thrilling as its subject.
Trigger/content warnings: medical content, illness, murder, racism
I’ll be honest, this is one of those books that I mostly picked up because the title caught my eye and appealed to that little part of my brain that is intrigued by the macabre. I knew almost nothing going into it–and so I was very pleasantly surprised by the directions it was able to take its commentary. This isn’t just a book about human skin books–it is an examination of historical medical ethics, sociocultural biases, the conflicts between fact and folktale (and when truth is just as strange as fiction), and fundamental questions of bodily autonomy, in both life and death.
It carried all the things you’d expect–horrifying descriptions of tanneries and appalling 19th-century doctor behavior, deep dives into historical medical libraries, a couple stories about murderers, and so on–but it was remarkable in the scope it lent to the analysis, and the sensitivity with which it handled the fraught history of these books. The author managed to weave her experiences and research into something that is equal parts shocking and reflective, spanning multiple centuries and countries, with a colorful cast of doctors and criminals and researchers, but always circling back to the thorny questions of ethics and personhood that linger at the root of this shocking phenomenon. Is it better to preserve these books for research? To destroy them as items that have degraded someone’s humanity by turning them into something ornamental? To return them to the families, if identifiable, of those whose skin was used? To put them on display as a reminder of past human brutality? Rosenbloom feels strongly that the books should be preserved, but she still recognizes the viewpoints of those who feel differently. And even admist all these heavy points, the writing also weaves in the occasional bit of wry humor, keeping things from becoming too navel-gaze-y or historical-documentary-esque.
Two random things that especially stood out to me in reading this book, which are relevant in a contemporary context:
- What is the legal status of a corpse? It is not a person, but it is also not property, and there is very little legal research on the subject.
- What sort of rights exist for people who want to preserve their skin–for example, preserving their tattoos as art–after their death? Is it a violation of dignity to do this? Or is it a greater disrespect to not follow those wishes?
(There’s no grand conclusion to be drawn from those, but perhaps they give a little additional insight to what I mean when I talk about some of the more interesting ethical questions raised!)
And, as a final note (as seems fitting for an audiobook review), the narrator for this one was excellent, with enough enthusiasm to make even the few drier history portions accessible, but never veering into the realm of being too melodramatic or insensitive. There were a handful of times where she picked some weird accents for certain people in conversation, which almost seemed to reach the point of caricature, but that wasn’t necessarily bad, just…odd?
I will say, there were a few points where it was a bit too technical for my liking, getting too far into the historical weeds or name-dropping lots of figures from previous chapters (perhaps this was in part difficult because I was listening to it rather than looking at a page, so I just lost track of names). There was also a bit near the end where the author started talking about her family and illness in the context of these books, and while it was an interesting point, it felt tonally discordant with the rest of the book, and like perhaps an unneeded effort to insert parts of herself beyond just her research.
All told, this is one of those books that will stick with you for a while, not just because of its more morbid elements, but also because of the bigger questions it forces you to think about. It is at once science, history, philosophy, and horror–an unlikely combination, and yet a highly potent one.