June 10, 2014
Rethinking Green Death: Binding A Book With Human Skin
People around the world love to collect books of all shapes and forms. For some, the more rare the better, while others collect books for the way they look, particularly for the binding. People will collect books specifically for what they are bound in whether that be leather, gold, or human skin. Wait…what!?! Books are bound in human skin? No way!
Well, it turns out that at least one book is. According to a CNN article, “Experts at Harvard said this week that they have confirmed that a 19th-century book housed in one of the university’s libraries is bound in human skin.” And although this seems incredibly creepy to today’s book lover, it is a centuries-old practice. But let’s start with Harvard’s Houghton Library’s book.
The book, Des destinees de l’ame, was written by the French writer Arsene Houssaye who gave it to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, one of his book-loving friends. The book has been described as “a meditation on the soul and life after death.” In a note that Dr. Bouland left in the book he wrote, “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” And you know what? I can kind of understand what Dr. Bouland means. A treasured gift from a writer friend given to a man who loves books deserve something special. Now, I am not sure that I would use human skin, but he was a medical doctor, so it does, in a weird way, make sense. And just FYI, the skin came from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who died from a stroke.
At one point, Harvard’s college newspaper, The Crimson, reported that Harvard had at least three books bound in human skin, but it turns out that the other two were likely bound with sheepskin, which is slightly less disturbing to most although there are some people who find even binding a book in sheepskin or other animal leathers is still creepy.
Okay, now onto the fact that binding books in human skin was not as unusual and certainly not as creepy in the past. It turns out that some people asked to be memorialized in the form of a book for family or lovers. I have to say as a lover of books, and a writer, I can sort of understand this request. A less sentimental reason for binding something in human skin occurred with criminals. Occasionally, criminal confessions were bound in the skin of the convicted.
When first I read all of this, all I could think was “Ewwww!” It made me think of the article I wrote about the man who stole around $350,000 worth of human skin. Perhaps he was selling it to a secret niche of bookbinders that want to bring back the human-skin bound book. Then, of course, I realized that was likely not what was happening in that case. But still, it is awfully weird that within weeks of each other, first someone stole human skin then we find out that Harvard has a book bound in human skin.
After some time, though, I really started thinking about the history of binding books in human skin. To think that upon my death my loved ones could have a book bound in my skin really is apropos for me. Whether it was my favorite book or even my own writings, they could have part of me physically in the form that I loved best: with words. That is in its very weirdo way kind of precious. I have a necklace charm with my father’s thumbprint embossed on sterling silver. It may not be his actual body, but it is still a part of him. Moreover, a book bound in our loved one’s skin really is no different than having the ashes of our loved ones. And some people turn those ashes into jewelry and wear their loved ones on their fingers, around their wrists, or dangling from their necks. How is that any less creepy than having a book bound in the skin of someone who loved books and/or was a writer? Perhaps the argument is that both are pretty creepy. Still, I get it, in both cases.
Okay, so I am not going to go out and request that my lover and my family bind me in a book upon my death, but I do understand why people in the past would have done such a thing. If my choices are burial or book binding, I would definitely go for the book binding. Who knew that by the end of this I would understand the choice that Dr. Bouland made?
Credit: Harvard University, Houghton Library