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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  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD

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