I’ve been spending the past week thinking about what sort of introduction to pen for the following interview with Megan Rosenbloom about her debut nonfiction book, Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Intros are always the hardest part, aren’t they? How do you sum up a brilliant writer, an intensely unique and intriguing subject matter, and one of the coolest, most thrillingly-researched books you’ve ever read… in a way that isn’t massively hyperbolic or, conversely, somehow doesn’t do any of it enough justice?
I considered beginning with some imaginary scenarios in the style of some of my own favorite tales, and which might pave the way for what you can expect to find in these pages detailing the history of books bound in human skin (Yes! that’s what this book is about! Like me, have you been waiting for this for your entire freaking life??) Perhaps a scholarly account of gentleman doctors in their mahogany-shelved libraries, flaunting strange collections; following the gruesome and clandestine theatrics of midnight corpse-thieving grave robbers, assisting midwives to royalty, bearing witness to 19th-century highwaymen in their final hours, poets and paupers, murderers and scientists–as in the book itself, all of these characters would have a role to play in my opening words here, but none, I think, so engrossing and engaging as the author of this book, herself.
Medical historian and biblio-adventurer Megan Rosenbloom’s chronicles of books bound in human skin (or Anthropodermic Bibliopegy) doesn’t just detail these books, or the collectors, or the people who created them; she passionately and humanely explores the people they used to be, and this is an emotional examination that renders these pages, and I am quoting from The LA Times here, “…surprisingly intersectional, touching on gender, race, socioeconomics, and the Western medical establishment’s colonialist mindset.” Come for the weird books facts, stay for the unexpected and powerful human questions.
As it happens, I did have some questions for the human who wrote what I believe is the most impassioned and exhilarating book of 2020! See below for our chat with Megan Rosenbloom, and yes, I asked the tacky question you would all expect me to ask. But, as she asserts in the book, “corpse desecration is ultimately in the eye of the beholder,” well, then, so too is tackiness.
SE: Not being much of a history buff myself…which is know is rather shameful… I learned a great many surprising things from this book, a book where I thought I was just going to get my macabre/weird-factoid itches scratched, albeit in a well-researched and highly thoughtful way! I should have known better! What was the most shocking or surprising thing you learned in your research and analysis of anthropodermic books? And so much of this book is about separating fact from fiction, myth from reality. So your most shocking thing…was it a true thing? Or a historical supposition that you debunked?
MR: The emergence of some French private collectors that reached out to us really surprised me, because once I realized there was probably an underground world of French human skin books that I’d never be able to access, some of them just came and found me and that was really thrilling. The Poe book in particular, the look of it but also its incredible provenance just kind of blew my mind. People will have to read the book to get that tale. I have a feeling that I am not nearly done with the French underground market…
I realize that this is a ridiculous question, bordering on gauche, but if you strip away the unsavory bits about many of these books, mainly (if I understand correctly) that their binding materials were obtained by unethical and non-consensual means, and if we pretend that it’s not at all a morbid practice (which…I don’t think that is a stretch for us, really) what would you deem an appropriate type of book to be bound in human skin? And maybe the best way to answer this is from a personal perspective… If you mandated that after death that this what you’d like done with your skinsuit…what sort of book would you like it wrapped around?
If I had to use my skin to cover a book, I think I’d have to somewhat follow the route of some of the folks in my book and bind Dark Archives in my skin. I worked on the book for so long and it really put me through the wringer, but I’m also quite proud of it (and of having published a book at all, a truly lifelong dream), so it seems fitting enough for me. But do note: I do not want my skin bound in a book. I do not consent! Here it is in writing. My friend Anna Dhody, the curator at the Mütter Museum, is gunning for my tattoo for the collection after I die. I got it as a book-finishing present to myself and it’s a mix of an image found on a bookplate in their collection and their library’s logo. I haven’t decided yet whether I like the idea or not, but knowing Anna, she will lie in wait patiently until I decide. She may be delightfully creepy, but she cares deeply about consent too.
“Why is the law so murky about what one can and cannot do with a human corpse?” you muse within the pages of the book, and YEAH, WHY? I am still unclear on, say, if in my earlier question, you did request in your last will and testament to have your personal diary or whatever bound in your skin–would your relatives have a legal problem fulfilling that final wish of yours?
It is a very 21st century American notion that as long as you consent to doing something with your body, that it should be legal. Laws have not really caught up with us here. Its potential legality greatly depends on where you are, not just the country, but in the U.S. the individual state, and there’s no U.S. law that expressly forbids making a human skin book per se, but there are a number of state laws that could be invoked to file a claim of, say, “desecration of a corpse,” which is often judged by a very vague bar of “community standards.”
At other points in history, some body disposition methods like cremation could have been viewed as desecration of a corpse by a community. That’s the reason why some of the folks in the Order of the Good Death have been working to make certain newer disposition methods like aquamation (using water instead of fire to get a similar ash-like product that’s much more eco-friendly) and recomposition (basically human composting that can act like natural burial but in an urban setting) expressly legal in multiple states so they don’t have to wait and see whether someone wants to challenge the methods legally as desecration. That’s a great way to go about innovating in the deathsphere I think, because otherwise professionals would be putting themselves on the line by agreeing to carry out your wishes, not knowing if someone will file a complaint. But I suspect the demand for post-mortem human skin bookbinding is pretty niche and unlikely to have people pushing for getting a law on the books one way or the other.
Dark Archives connects so much of your work and the lessons you’ve learned as a librarian, a writer, and a Death Positive activist, an intersection of roles I find utterly fascinating. But it’s the death positive aspect I find that I keep coming back to as it relates to books bound in human skin and the lives–and deaths– of the individuals who most likely did not consent to have their mortal remains exploited in such a way. Can you speak to the findings in this book in terms of what it means to have A Good Death, and the lessons we can take away from it?
I would say death positivity runs throughout the book, whether it’s me going through my journey to decide what I want done with my corpse when I die, or thinking through all of the implications about the ways bodies have been used and abused throughout history, or indulging morbid curiosity without shame. From our current vantage point, I would say the person closest to having a good death in my book is George Walton because he wanted to be made into a book. The others likely had no idea this fate would befall them. But again, this is all from our perspective today where we have bodily consent as a concept and hold the idea very dear.
One death positive takeaway from the book is when we dig into death practices from different time periods and cultures, it reflects back to us how culturally relative our own ideas of what is a good or bad death is.
And on the very opposite end of the spectrum, that of the vibrant and the living! I know that you have a toddler in the house and I am so curious as to what she thinks of all of this business! You and I were no doubt, inquisitive children, with an interest in weird things…and I realize human skin books aren’t the topic for kiddie convos in every household…but I bet we would have appreciated knowing about them when we were young! And so I can’t help but imagine your wee one has an interest in your book and what you’re writing about, so I am curious about how you might talk to a child about this sort of thing. And of course, I am dying to know your kid’s reaction.
My kid is 3 going on 4 and precocious in the way that she talks, so it’s pretty funny to see what her concept of what I do is. One time she used a wall calendar as a “laptop” and pretended to bang on the keys saying, “Oh! There’s a good information right there.” One of her Mo Willems books has a drawing with a monster doing research with papers and stack of books, and even as a 2-year-old she’d say, “That’s you.” No lies detected!
She’s not really into creepy stuff but she has stuffed grim reapers (yes multiple), a plague doctor, and a human skin stuffie, because she lives in my home and it comes with the territory. She knows I wrote a book, but I don’t think she knows about the books bound in human skin. She generally digs that I’m a librarian, but I think that is mostly because Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony is also a librarian. So, twinsies.
Finally, after reading the words on the final pages of Dark Archives, closing the book, and reflecting back on all that they’ve learned regarding the history and legacy of anthropodermic books, what is the one thing that you hope readers take away from everything you’ve shared here?
I hope readers get that there’s a lot more to these books than just being spooky, creepy things. They are that, and if you want creepy stuff you’ll get plenty in the book, but they are also vessels for a lot of really important conversations. Thus far I’ve been really gratified that readers get what I was going for; they see the humanity and respect I bring to the topic while still being able to enjoy the sillier parts of my journey alongside the deeper issues.