Book Review: “Dark Archives” by Megan Rosenbloom

I always find it hard to review non-fiction books, because a topic that’s interesting to me could still be interesting to me if the author presents it in a rather dry format, but other people may want their non-fiction to be a bit spicier, and they don’t like reading dry and dull books.

At least in my opinion, Dark Archives is not a dry and dull book by any means.

Megan Rosenbloom discusses the science behind figuring out if books are made from human skin or from animal leather (using only the tiniest bit of the book’s binding so as not to ruin the historic artifact of the book itself), and then talks about her journeys across the world to investigate possible human skin books. Some of the institutions contact her, and sometimes she contacts the institutions. Most of the ones that contact her are doing so in order to get their books tested; on the other hand, most of the places that she contacts don’t want to get their books tested.

I did learn a lot while reading the book, such as the fact that one of the most popular rumors to come out of the French revolution is that the aristocrats who were executed by guillotine had their skins used as bindings of revolutionary books. I can see how this rumor has taken hold, but Rosenbloom has discovered that most of these supposed revolutionary human skin books are in fact bound in animal leather.

I think the most interesting fact that I learned from this book was that is was mainly doctors who requested books be bound in human skin (that they had lying around for one reason or another). The doctors who had these books bound in human skin were well-known, but for the most part, the people whose skins were used have been lost to history. One, Dr. Hough, did write the name of the woman whose skin he used on the inside of his book, but this was not a common practice. It’s a point of contention as to whether or not these books need to be buried will full rites and rituals, or if it’s okay for a university library to keep them in their collection, for example. There are loud people on both sides of the argument, and as for myself – I don’t know. Most of the books that are bound in human skin have many other copies (there’s a copy of Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, for example, bound in human skin), but the ones that are the only ones left of their kind, I think those need to stay in the collections. But that’s why I’m not a scientist: I can’t be trusted to make major decisions like this.

If you’re looking for a book that’s slightly on the macabre side, but is full of interesting facts, I would absolutely recommend Dark Archives as your next read. It’s an easy read (very short), but it’s got a lot of information in it. I look forward to seeing if Rosenbloom is able to test any more of those books, and what they can tell us about our past.

And as always, keep reading.

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