November 2020 pick for the Fantastic Strangelings Book Club!
Okay, so hear me out because this is going to sound like a weird-ass book but it is FASCINATING and true and filled with amazing research and incredible stories and it reminds me so much of the wonderful books of Mary Roach. (If you haven’t read her, you should.)— Jenny
On bookshelves around the world, surrounded by ordinary books bound in paper and leather, rest other volumes of a distinctly strange and grisly sort: those bound in human skin. Would you know one if you held it in your hand?
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.
Winner of the 2021 Best Monograph Award from LAMPHHS (Librarians, Archivists, & Museum Professionals in the History of the Health Sciences)
“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.” —James Hamblin, The New York Times Book Review
“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
“With sincere curiosity and clear-eyed analysis, Rosenbloom, a librarian at UCLA with a specialty in the history of medicine, unfurls the stories of the binders of the skins and their previous inhabitants . . . 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, LA Times
"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." —Emma Grey Ellis, Wired
“[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
"The most interesting and unsettling text of recent times . . . Written with the pace of a detective thriller." —New Statesman
"What begins as an investigation into fascinatingly macabre volumes becomes a reflection on medical ethics, consent and mortality." —The Economist
“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—if we’re only brave enough to take a closer look . . . [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
“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
“As Rosenbloom crisscrosses the globe to confirm the purported origins of skin-bound books—a cracking detective story in itself—her journey offers unusual insight into what defines informed consent, what separates homage from exploitation, and how power disparities can breed casual inhumanity.” —Elizabeth Svoboda, Undark
“Meticulously researched and ceaselessly fascinating . . . Rosenbloom, being an affable and magnetic narrator, takes readers on a journey from libraries to museums and private collectors . . . Dark Archives deftly ties the macabre together with the educational and amusing and is the perfect post-Halloween read for a curious Angeleno.” —Jonathan Peltz, LA Taco
“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? . . . [Rosenbloom] 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 . . . Come for the weird books facts, stay for the unexpected and powerful human questions.” —S. Elizabeth, Haute Macabre
“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.” —Marisa Mercurio, Sublime Horror
"[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
“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
"Profoundly odd, wholly original, and utterly engrossing! If there were a Pulitzer for the category 'who knew?,' Ms. Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives would win it hands down." —Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
"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