Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2024 Issue

How To Skin A Book

Harvard University has just stripped off one of its infamous books that was bound with human skin.

 

On March 27, 2024, Harvard University publicly announced they had removed the human skin from one of their books. Thus a 90-year long offence has come to an end: their copy of Des Destinées de l’âme by Arsène Houssaye (Paris, 1879) is now stripped off its infamous garment—as we say in French, la morale est sauve! Anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding books with human skin) wasn’t such a sin a few decades ago. We’ve already talked about those gruesome books in February 2017*: it was all about James Allen’s biography kept in the vaults of the private library Boston Athenaeum. The villain apparently asked some of his skin to be removed from his back after his execution so that two copies of his memoirs could be bound with it. We also know that some sick libertins had lewd books bound with the skin of women’s breasts—the nipples being the most sensational parts of it. Boys will be boys...

 

There is more than one morbid item in Harvard: “In 2022, Harvard released a report that identified more than 20,000 human remains in its various collections,Le Monde** website reports. But this one’s been put to trial 90 years later, and found guilty of failing “to meet the level of ethical standards to which (we) subscribe," Harvard stated in an official statement. The story of this binding is indeed disturbing. Unlike James Allen, the French donator never gave her consent—and even if she had, it wouldn’t have been acceptable as she was mentally ill. There’s more about it: it’s her own doctor, Ludovic Bouland, who skinned a part of her body after she died. He then sent a note to Arsène Houssaye: "A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering." But is this actual human skin? On April 4, Michael Sauers wrote on his blog The Travelin’ Librarian:Baaaaaad news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy: Recent analyses of a book owned by the (Harvard) Library, long believed but never proven to have been bound in human skin, have conclusively established that the book was bound in sheepskin.” But our copy wasn’t included in those conclusions. On the contrary, Harvard stated that thorough analysis had confirmed that it was human skin. But now, what should they do with their loose piece of skin? Le Monde writes: “The university said it was consulting with French authorities "to determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains."

 

This can’t be bad news, given the circumstances. Yet, the question remains: why did they feel the urge to do such reparation after 90 years? And what’s the point? Do they believe that the soul of this poor woman had been kept in heaven’s custody because of that? Is it a moral stand—and a genuine one? If so, do they really think erasing all old evil deeds will make us any “better” people? Shouldn’t we face the past instead? Treating our ancestors like unruly children who deserve to be spanked according to our contemporary moral values is intellectual dishonesty, if not a pathetic attempt at appearing righteous. Unfortunately, destroying the symbols of collective failures is very common—the cancel culture is nothing new. In the preface of his interesting book, Houssaye quotes a maxim of La Rochefoucauld, author of Les Maximes (1664): both death and the sun are impossible to stare at—he should have added a disturbing past.

 

T. Ehrengardt

 

* https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2157

**https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2024/03/29/harvard-removes-human-skin-from-binding-of-a-book-held-for-over-90-years-at-library_6664506_4.html

 

Posted On: 2024-05-01 02:50
User Name: davereis

This is like tearing down statues. You cannot truthfully retool factual events of the past. The huge amount of cost and labor involved in maintaining a library shouldn't go boil down to attempting to destroy past events that we don't feel comfortable with. That not what a library is for. Or history, for that matter.


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