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Dark Archives

A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

Megan Rosenbloom

Picador

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ISBN10: 1250800161
ISBN13: 9781250800169

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288 Pages

$18.00

CA$24.50

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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.

Reviews

Praise for Dark Archives

“[Dark Archives] begins as a quest for the fascinating and forbidden: the reader is invited to share the thrill of pursuit, and of the moment when the sinister and legendary provenance of a book is scientifically verified. But as the histories of these books unfold, the focus necessarily shifts from their creators and possessors to the lives of those who supplied the skin.”—Mike Jay, The New York Review of Books

“Part scholar, part journalist, part wide-eyed death enthusiast, Rosenbloom takes readers on her own journey to understand how and why human-skin books came to be . . . She includes no shortage of memorable scientific minutiae and clarifications of misunderstood history along the way . . . The era of consent in medicine—including in organ and cadaver donation—is still in its infancy. Rosenbloom’s book, and the skin-bound books she discusses, compel us to reckon with that arc, and to try to bend it more urgently in an ethical direction.”—James Hamblin, The New York Times Book Review

“Readers who relish the ‘dark academia’ vibes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or the historical medical accuracy of The Knick will love spending time in Rosenbloom’s company, though the book holds broader appeal as well . . . Dark Archives shifts the reader’s morbid gaze from the bizarre physical objects to the societies that created them and the lessons they can impart . . . [Rosenbloom’s] work attaches names and experiences to objects that would otherwise remain grotesque curiosities . . . Dark Archives relays these stories with care, connecting names and histories with the relics left behind.” —Christine Jacobson, Los Angeles Review of Books

“The result of Rosenbloom’s probing travelogues, lively histories and deep study of book stewardship is an incongruously bright-eyed view of a subject that, in the hands of another scholar, might be either plodding or gruesomely sensationalistic. The true story of how people became books is surprisingly intersectional, touching on gender, race, socioeconomics and the Western medical establishment’s colonialist mindset.”—Leslie Pariseau, Los Angeles Times

“Driven by an engine of curiosity, Rosenbloom moves through history at a brisk pace, bookending each chapter with excellent hooks and cliff hangers, all of which makes for propulsive reading . . . A species of reparative writing, Dark Archives excavates the hidden stories stitched into the binding of anthropodermic books and, in doing so, restores some humanity to victims of medical exploitation. Delightful and propulsive, Rosenbloom's measured balance of bloody thrills with historical fact and ethical nuance makes Dark Archives a titillating Halloween read.”—Connor Goodwin, NPR

"Against all odds, a delight . . . Regardless of how wacky or tragic any particular book’s journey has been, Rosenbloom approaches them all with such good humor, solid science, and unerring respect for the dead that Dark Archives manages to be life-affirming amidst all the ethical debate and stinky tannery mishaps. Dark? Always. Gross? Sometimes. But ignoring these books erases the lives literally stitched into them. Just don’t read it at the dinner table."—Emma Grey Ellis, Wired

“An engaging chronicle of a shadowy aspect of clinical medicine . . . Megan Rosenbloom is the ideal guide to anthropodermic bibliopegy—binding books in human skin . . . Despite the grisly nature of the proceedings, Dark Archives succeeds precisely because Rosenbloom respects the books for their research value as well as the people whose skin was used to bind them, often without their consent.”—Frank Brasile, Shelf Awareness

“Reminiscent of Mary Roach, Rosenbloom’s tone is inquisitive and, at turns, morbidly funny and deeply contemplative . . . Rosenbloom sustains Dark Archives with thought-provoking accounts . . . presenting various histories and perspectives with respect, sensibility and, yes, humour . . . 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.”—Marisa Mercurio, Sublime Horror

"Dark Archives is a gorgeous dive into the humanity and inhumanity of the people behind (and on) these strangely captivating books. Propelled by curiosity and bibliophilia, Rosenbloom travels far and wide and deep within, taking us to unimaginable places. This is a masterful work, enlightened and enlivened by Rosenbloom's scholarship and her involvement with the death positive movement. If there were a word for the perfect pairing of author and subject and the giddy joy that pairing brings to the reader, I'd be using it right now."—Mary Roach, author of Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

"An international treasure hunt, fascinating medical history, high level PR nightmare, and heartrending account of the real people whose flesh was turned into curiosities by the medical professionals they trusted."—Caitlin Doughty, author of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions About Death

"Megan Rosenbloom is the perfect guide to a dark and sinister world populated by Victorian criminals, bodysnatchers, and dissectors—all of whom contributed to the gruesome art of binding books with human skin."—Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

“This intriguing intersection of history, science, and the macabre stems from Rosenbloom's work as a researcher for The Anthropodermic Book Project, a team dedicated to investigating books bound in human skin. She digs deep into the origin story of these morbid artifacts . . . A unique conversation about consent, medical ethics, and legalities . . . Rosenbloom’s passion for the topic is infused in each page, making for a captivating read.”—Michelle Ross, Booklist

"[Rosenbloom's] investigation into the past reveals much about the history of medicine . . . Wide-ranging, engagingly written, and unusual . . . [Dark Archives] will fascinate those interested in a new angle from which to consider what it means to be human and what our responsibilities are to other people . . . Essential."—Stephanie Klose, Library Journal (starred review)

"Fascinating . . . Rosenbloom’s conversational tone and obvious excitement at the thrill of the chase counterbalances the macabre nature of her subject . . . Lighter moments, such as a visit to an artisanal tanning facility that results in the destruction of Rosenbloom’s Keds, make her obsession with the sometimes gruesome stories behind these books relatable. This unique and well-researched account shines an intriguing light on a hidden corner of the rare books world."Publishers Weekly

BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

[1]

THE FIRST PRINTING


Of all the reasons someone would want to go to Harvard, morbid curiosity is a rare one. Back in early 2015, I headed to Harvard’s Houghton Library to see what was then the only...

About the author

Megan Rosenbloom

Megan Rosenbloom is a librarian with a research interest in the history of medicine and rare books. Formerly a medical librarian and journalist, she is now the collection strategies librarian at UCLA Library in Los Angeles. She is also the president of the Southern California Society for the History of Medicine. She is a member of the Anthropodermic Book Project, a multidisciplinary team scientifically testing alleged human skin books around the world to verify their human origin. A proponent of the death-positive movement, she was also the cofounder and director of Death Salon, the events arm of the Order of the Good Death.

Polly Barrowman

Megan Rosenbloom

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