Book Review: “Dark Archives,” by Megan Rosenbloom

Wishing you all a contemplative and family-filled Martin Luther King Day. On the one hand, I am thrilled to have the day off from a stressful job, but on the other, a price was paid. Martin Luther King Jr. has all new significance in a year of division like this, and I hope you all have a chance to take a minute and reflect.

I was very happy also to have the time to finish a couple of great books that I started last year. One of these was on my “most anticipated books of 2020” list, Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom. While nonfiction isn’t normally my forte (this may be my first nonfiction book on this blog), who can beat an in-depth look into the history and truth of anthropodermic bibliopegy – books bound in human skin? Call me morbid, but the subject is fascinating. So without further ado…


From the Publisher:

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, innocents, 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.


What I Loved:

What I loved most, and what was the overarching theme of Dark Archives, was the diverse historical context. Rosenbloom has spent her career studying and looking for anthropodermic books, and her body of research shows. We get to learn about the French Revolution, Nazi-era Germany, Civil War-era USA, and 19th-20th century medical culture in the UK, and while it is all through the lens of human cruelty and medical knowledge, it is history I never learned in school. We learn that at one point, human dissection via donation to science wasn’t a thing, and the only way medical students learned about the human body was through dissecting murderers’ bodies or by buying corpses from grave robbers. We learn that the Nazis destroyed a lot of their macabre “trophies” like a lampshade bound in human tattooed skin, so there has not as yet been proof of this particular kind of atrocity.

What I think is most shocking about Rosenbloom’s conclusions is that it wasn’t “monsters” who bound books in skin, but rather mostly by doctors of decent renown in their communities. Prior to the international ethical standards that were established for how doctors interacted with the general public, doctors would regularly create their own trophies, such as medical treatises bound in human skin or skulls on their desks. To get to that conclusion, however, Rosenbloom extensively explores the darkest rumors of human bound books throughout history.

Through Rosenbloom’s’ exploration of the history, she did a great job of highlighting racism and sexism in the intellectual fields. For reasons unknown, many people (specifically white people) have claimed to own books specifically bound in POC skin, whether it be Native American, black, or other, and the claims have largely been unproven. Similarly, one of the most “valued” medical treatises regarding female anatomy was bound in an unnamed woman’s skin, and the doctor showed a callous disregard of the woman involved. Rosenbloom highlights this specific problem so well; both the lack of autonomy presented in these human bound books, and the perverse glee that white men took in owning books purported to be bound in women/POC skin.

Lastly, on a personal note, as someone who has spent a lot of time recently wishing they’d become a librarian instead of an attorney, Rosenbloom is a wonderful advocate for the profession. Rosenbloom experienced hardship and medical problems of a loved one, she persevered, and is now one of the coolest librarians I have ever heard of (except maybe Evelyn from The Mummy).

I am a librarian

What Didn’t Work *as Well*

Honestly, I found this book to be near flawless. My only major issue (which proved to be a bit of a boon) was the unorganized structure the information was presented. Rosenbloom, I believe, presented Dark Archives in chronological order from when she found the books or was searching for them, so the chapters on Nazism are before the French Revolution and the late 1800s was at the beginning. The reason why this worked for me specifically was because I read Dark Archives at a ridiculously leisurely pace, picking it up and putting it down for about two months. The disjointed nature of the chapters really didn’t bother me because I wasn’t reading this in one sitting at the edge of my seat.

What didn’t bother me at all, but seemed to bother other readers on Goodreads, was how not morbid Dark Archives was. This was a mostly historical book that presented anthropodermic books as a human moral failing, if anything, rather than a gruesome tale of horror and depravity. Personally, I liked it. It took a topic that I didn’t know much about, gave me a lot of knowledge about it, and made it interesting. However, horror seekers may want to look elsewhere.


Conclusion:

Dark Archives is what I would call a quintessential book for book people. Rosenbloom wrote this with a librarian’s eye and keen passion for all books. It delves into multiple points and places in history, moral and ethical questions, and medical knowledge. While it is definitely not for the “thrill seekers” or horrormongers, I would still recommend it to even my fiction loving friends. Four waves! Buy your copy here because its on sale and who can resist this beautiful cover!

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