It Puts the Skin on the Book

SkinIt rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

I don’t want to write this article. But I think I have to say something. You may remember the movie The Silence of the Lambs. In it, a serial killer by the name of “Buffalo Bill” is skinning women, trying to make his own suit of skin. The best thing about the movie is that the actor who played Buffalo Bill went on to play Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Otherwise, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t think fiction about serial killers is ever very good. It is always filled with the most unbelievable police work. Real serial killers are much more interesting. But I’m getting side tracked. So this serial killer was sewing himself a skin suit, which is at least totally creepy.

That brings us to yesterday, when Alexis Madrigal informed me that, Science Confirms: Yup, This Book Really Is Bound in Human Skin. Not that I am implying anything about Madrigal, but this is not the first time he’s written on the subject; two months ago, he wrote, It Was Once “Somewhat Common” to Bind Books With Human Skin. He started the article like this:

You think Twitter is weird? Look at early print culture and the practice of what book historians call anthropodermic bibliopegy. That would be binding books in human skin.

Let’s suppose you were a rich man in the middle of the 17th century and you really loved Shakespeare’s sonnets. (You shouldn’t; they’re weak.) And you die. What a great use of your estate to have a copy of the sonnets bound with your skin. It could be propped up on a table in the sitting room and your children could say, “Dad’s looking good today!” According to Heather Cole, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library, “The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted.” I’m thinking something like this:

It is a far, far better skin that I give, than I have ever given; it is a far, far better book that I bind than I have ever known. PS: I didn’t do it though. It was just a stupid 19th century plot device that I happen to look like this guy. You would think—really you would—if Dickens could save that jerk Ebenezer Scrooge, he could have saved me. But no. Of course not. Off with my head! Let’s get this thing over with.

Anyway, after testing for just about every form of ape and monkey skin around, Harvard now knows it has an actual book bound in human skin. And what is this book? It is Des Destinees de l’Ame by the French novelist Arsene Houssaye. You would think that any article about this book would mention what it is about. It is, after all, bound with human skin! But no. Even though he wrote well over a hundred works, English Wikipedia isn’t much interested in him. French Wikipedia is more interested, providing a more detailed biography and an actual list of works. But there is no entry on this book, but we do know he wrote it when he was 65 years old and the title in English is, The Destiny of the Soul.

According to an article in The Guardian, it is Houssaye’s “mediations on the spirit.” I assume that it was not published bound with human skin. In fact, an inscription on the last page of this copy reads:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [The Wavuma are believed to be an African tribe from the region currently known as Zimbabwe.] on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [Rest in peace.]

That’s 247 years before Des Destinees de l’Ame was published. So someone must have taken the original book, disposed of the pages, and put Houssaye’s book inside it. And why not? I mean, it is a book about the nature of the spirit, it ought to be encased inside human skin. But it’s still creepy as hell.

It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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