For the past 64 springs, book dealers from around the world set up shop at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair to exhibit their very best stuff. What kind of stuff? As the Book Fair informs us, “rare books, maps, illuminated manuscripts, fine bindings, illustrations, historical documents, photographs, prints, memorabilia, and ephemera.” In other words, a host of treasures that will tempt serious collectors to part with a good deal of money to buy them. But the Fair also welcomes less well-funded folks who simply wander around and gawk at the singular items on display.

This year, two New York Times reporters covering the Book Fair did some gawking of their own. At the bookstand of one dealer was a 3” by 5” copy of a 17th-century French play, “Le Baron d’Albikrac,” by Thomas Corneille. This otherwise unimportant little book commanded an asking price of $45,000 on the strength of one special feature – it was bound in human skin.

The intrigued reporters went on to write an extensive article (April 20 print edition) on this unusual little corner of the book world. They mentioned as an example a skin-bound 1543 edition of de humani corporis fabrica, “The Structure of the Human Body,” by Andreas Vesalius, the anti-hero of my novel. This Fabrica received its new binding 300 years after it came out, so the great anatomist had no say in the matter. But how would he feel about it?

The practice of binding books with human skin – the tongue-twisting term is “anthropodermic bibliopegy” – is uncommon but centuries old. As reported in the Times, the oldest known examples are 13th-century bibles (I did not see that coming!), its popularity peaking in the 19th century (I did not see that coming, either), and fading out by the early 20th.

Since 2015, The Anthropodermic Book Project has identified 51 “alleged” skin-bound books. Using a nifty technology called “peptide mass fingerprinting,” they’ve so far validated 18 bindings and debunked 14. It’s not known how many others are out there; private collectors might be circumspect about going public with them. There is a partial list in Wikipedia; the validated skin-bound Fabrica is at Brown University.

Beyond merely cataloging these books, scholars have taken up a larger project: the ethics of using human skin to bind books. Some libraries have actually removed these bindings; others will do no such thing. It boils down to a choice: do libraries and collectors respect modern sensibilities or decline to tamper with history?

It bears reminding that zillions of books are skin-bound – just not with human skin. What we call “leather” is derived from non-human animal skin. While most of us hardly give a thought to where “leather” bindings come from, we’ll get pretty squeamish about books bound in human skin. No sane person would bind a book in human skin these days; not even the Nazis got around to it.

So then, can we make some sense out of anthropodermic book-binding by our forebears? Let’s first agree that since ancient times, we humans regularly engaged in gruesome violations of the human body – beheadings, burnings, disembowelings, drawing and quartering, and other creative methods of torture – not to mention, I might add, the flaying of skin. So, it’s not too hard to imagine a skin-bound book being a victim’s final indignity for their crimes or heresies.

But with skin-bound books, were there other, more acceptable reasons for choosing human skin over leather? I think there were, if you put the books into historical context. For example:

  • That little book at the book fair was bound with the skin of a dead actress who performed that play. To us, that’s deeply disturbing, but 500 years ago, it was a tribute.
  • Maybe those 13th-century bibles were bound with the skins of martyrs or Cardinals.
  • Executed criminals requested to have their memoirs bound with their own skin.
  • The 19th-century skin used to cover the Fabrica surely came from a cadaver. One could argue that the bookbinder did it out of reverence, given that the book is a famous textbook of anatomy.

We can all agree that anthropodermic bibliopegy should no longer be practiced, not only because it’s so hard to say it quickly three times. On the other hand, I lean towards preserving those examples that currently exist, as we would any other historical relic. There had to be a specific intention in the bookbinder’s choice of human skin – pointing to a story beyond the book itself. Books are meant not only to be read, but to be seen and touched. If we denude these books, we denude their stories. These books should be presented as they are, and it’s up to us to understand them in the context in which they were created.

How would Vesalius feel about his skin-bound Fabrica? I have no doubt he’d have been flattered, and would have thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

* What’s that weird image at the top? It’s of a man who has flayed his own skin, from Historia de la composicion de la cuerpo humano, published in 1556 by Juan Valverde, who in the same book plagiarized many of Vesalius’s images from the Fabrica. Vesalius was quite pissed.