Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz : A Look at Cora

Book: Slaves of New York

Author: Tama Janowitz (if she has a blog or an official site, I cannot seem to find them)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book is one of my favorite books of all time and I just need to discuss it here.

Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve had a hard time writing, lately. I’ve got around half a dozen nearly complete entries, with at least twice that many partially finished discussions. I sort of know why I haven’t been able to finish them all but I also think that thinking about the reason why is irrelevant. I’ll finish them when I finish them. But in the middle of all that unfinished writing, I found myself wanting to discuss in detail one of my favorite books. Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz is in my Top-Twenty-All-Time-Favorite-Books and I’m sort of surprised I have not discussed it here yet.

The literary Brat Pack has gone to the rats, it seems. Donna Tartt is still doing well but she has yet to match the mind-blowing talent she showed in her very excellent novel, The Secret History (which I also cannot believe I have not discussed here yet). We still have Bret Easton Ellis doing things, good and bad, mostly entertaining in a rubbernecking-on-Twitter sort of way. I think Jay McInerney is still alive but I never liked him much in the first place. Same with Susan Minot. The two best Brat Pack writers in my estimation are Tartt and Tama Janowitz, and Slaves of New York is Janowitz’s masterpiece.

It really is a masterpiece.Though there are some pop culture references that age it a bit (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, y’all!), this book has held up well because the stories are character-driven and the situations reasonably universal. Struggles between relationship dependency and independence, faith in one’s skill and talent, difficulties with parents, depression, anxiety and neurosis –  it’s not going to read too archaic to modern readers. The stories had a period of acclaim but then more or less disappeared from the literary landscape. I see plenty of buzz around Bret Easton Ellis’ current and older works but very little about Janowitz, and even less about this short story collection. That’s a shame because this collection, while being funny and clever, is also so well-written that its power isn’t necessarily obvious after the first read.

I used to read Slaves of New York a couple of times a year, then it trickled down to once a year, then every other year, but it’s still a book I revisit. Each time I read it, I find myself marveling at something new I pick up in terms of plot and characterization. This book has proved to be a strange barometer of where I am as a human being, because over time my identification with specific characters has changed. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this novel is a paean to neurosis, a goddamn hallelujah to nervous, miserable, delusional, yet ultimately likeable headcases. If I love a book enough to reread it continually because I identify with characters, it’s a safe bet the book will be populated with neurotic people.

This is a collection of linked short stories, taking place in New York City, with a couple of outliers. The characters show up in walk-on roles in other stories, each story in this collection can stand alone, and each story is worth reading. Sometimes the links are subtle – one character speaks of having to rehome a cat that hated her boyfriend. A friend of hers took the cat in, and that same cat shows up in another story, tormenting a different man. (And that story, “Snowball,” is a look at a male neurotic, Victor. If you are prone to acid reflux, pop a Zantac before reading this story because Victor will give you sour burps. Victor, a nervous, anxious, miserable man, was portrayed by the suave, cool Chris Sarandon in the film adaptation of these stories. It’s hard for me to think of a film that was as completely miscast as Slaves of New York. John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes close. Skip the film, read the book.)

Of all the characters this book, there are three characters whose stories resonated with me at different times in my own life. Cora meant a lot to me when I was still quite young. Eleanor came up in my 30s. Marley, while I don’t necessarily see him in myself, is infinitely more understandable to me in my middle age. This depressive, neurotic, delusional trio, respectively, will make up the basis of my look at Slaves of New York. Cora, Eleanor, and Marley – my Disordered Trinity. To prevent this from being the longest discussion of a single book written by the Internet’s most verbose book lover, I will discuss each character in a separate entry. And yes, this will likely be a discussion of a story that may be longer than the story itself.

Let’s begin with Cora.

Communication Breakdown

Life in the not-too-distant-future has hiccuped. A Facebook message attempting to follow up on an e-mail message I never replied to showed that many e-mails sent to anita@oddthingsconsidered.com got hung up in transit and were languishing on my hosting site’s e-mail server. Electronic purgatory.

I am notoriously slow in replying to messages, and am awfully neurotic about talking to people in general, but I do reply, in the fullness of time. The fullness of time should not take months, however, unless you want to talk to me on the phone and I promise none of you want to talk to me on the phone. I don’t even talk to Mr. OTC on the phone. But e-mails I can generally steel myself up to deal with in a few weeks, max. I had around a hundred e-mails that I replied to over the last 12 hours or so. Though I had noticed most of my e-mails had dried up on OTC, I didn’t think much about it because I do spend a significant amount of time not really plugged into reality. I can’t imagine too many people wouldn’t notice all the e-mail streams to their website had completely dried up but there you go. I know I play up my neurosis, avoidance and absent-mindedness as a form of schtick, but in schtick there is truth sometimes.

There is a chance that some of the messages were lost permanently. If you sent me a message over the last few months and I did not reply today or yesterday, please resend it. Resend it to anitadalton@gmail.com for now. Even though I think everything has been taken care of, I am still not entirely convinced.

Sorry for the inconvenience!

ETA: Just received another 60-some-odd additional messages. It’s very early Monday morning, or some call it the middle of the night, so I’ll respond to those in a few hours. I think this has something to do with switching from IROB to OTC but I will admit this is a level of suck I had not expected. I am so sorry to everyone who sent me messages and got no reply.

Valencia by James Nulick

Book: Valencia*

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir (sort of)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s written in a style one does not commonly see in memoirs, a style that demands that you read the book twice in order to really understand the whole of it. The truly odd part is that I don’t think you will mind reading it twice in a row.

Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Or you can get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments: It’s hard to write an American memoir in the year of our Lord, 2016. Modernity has caused most of us to live unremarkable lives. No more surviving small pox or famine. Not a lot of terrain to discover that doesn’t already have several Taco Bell locations within a fifty-mile radius. No invaders from foreign lands, no wars on American soil. No duels, few remaining sexy hippie cults waiting to indoctrinate the young and innocent, and even those who have fled to large cities in order to carve out an interesting career in the arts while living with lots of interesting people in a bohemian slum are more likely to micro-blog about binge watching some fucking show about women having lots of implausible sex in a prison than their latest attempt at creating a mural or a novel or an interesting sculpture. The bulk of lives these day are completely unremarkable but sometimes reading about unremarkable lives can be interesting, if the life in question rings true to the reader, offering muffled catharsis for the quiet depression that is so much a part of modern ennui.

Don’t get me wrong – suburbia has a lot to recommend it but it doesn’t lend itself well to the creation of great memoirs unless we have something really and truly nasty lurking behind the scenes, and those things happen to us rather than being experiences we seek out. Good modern memoirists need at least one crazy or alcoholic parent, one unsettling example of sexual abuse, a slowly developing drug addiction, and maybe, if such a writer is lucky, one of his family members will commit a terrible crime or get killed in the course of a terrible crime and then he’ll be rolling in the life experiences that make up the modern memoir.

But even if one has these qualifiers, so do many others. If one is going to write a memoir about a prosaic life, even one with requisite misery, one needs to be a very good writer because otherwise the readers will be tempted to say, “Shitty parents, stranger touched me, drugs during college, terrible job, why am I reading this when I can clearly write my own memoir because everyone in the benighted Generation X more or less lived the same fucking life.”

Nulick takes his cues from all three categories: he’s lived a life that seems all too common to most Americans; he has catastrophic life experiences that make for interesting reading and a certain prurient rubbernecking; and he is a very good writer, profoundly good at times. We recognize Nulick’s life as our own in some respects, we are appalled at some of the things that happen to Nulick, and we are drawn in and held in by his unique and near-poetic style.

I mentioned this before in an entry closing out 2015, but it bears repeating. The way that Nulick writes reminds me of conversations one has with an old friend. You know this person well, but you haven’t spoken in a while. Your friend mentions an incident or a person in the course of telling a story, thinking that you know all about that incident or person. You don’t know, but you don’t interrupt because your friend is on a roll and you feel certain that in a moment you can either interject and ask a question or your friend will throw you enough clues in the conversation that you can piece it together. Sometimes you realize the information isn’t important enough to interrupt, because the point of the story isn’t about that person or place – it was just mentioned as an aside in the course of a larger topic.

This is how Nulick writes. Sometimes he mentions a name before we know who that person is. The first time this happened I wondered if I had overlooked the person as I read and I almost backtracked in order to find the original mention that I was sure I had missed. It can be a bit odd if you begin reading this book unaware that Nulick writes this way, treating you like an old friend listening to a long conversation about his life, but once you are knowledgeable about this method of story-telling, it feels completely normal, almost comfortable. You feel like you are being drawn into Nulick’s story in a manner that implies that he considers you a trusted friend, and that’s an unusual feeling when reading a memoir. I’ve often felt some commonality with memoirists as I read their works but this takes that feeling of knowing an author in a direction I can’t recall ever having read before. You may want to read this book through once and then read it again a week or so later. That second read cements that feeling of being a friend because you now feel like an insider to Nulick’s story.

That sense of commonality takes you only so far, though. I find it interesting how many books about Gen-X men have come across my radar lately and how I respond to them. In Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM, the protagonist Lester is utterly lost and a complete asshole, but as I mention in my discussion, he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. It’s hard to hate your brother even when he’s a prick. It’s irrational to hate a child you may have created but Baby Boomers despair of me and mine, and for some reason we all seem to be poking Millennials with a stick as if we didn’t fucking make the world they were born into, like we didn’t raise them or mold them into the people they are now. Yet Nulick, in as much as this memoir accurately reflects his real life, at times inspired in me the same nose-pinching desire I felt toward Sterzinger’s Lester. I just wanted to smack him as he artistically destroyed his life, almost as if he was modeling his destruction on those who came before him and set the example for the lost, dissolute, addicted writer.

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Book: In the Sky

Author: Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book reached into my chest, grabbed my heart with both hands, and wrung it out.

Availability: Published in 2014 by Nine Banded Books, you can and should get a copy here:

You can also get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments:  This book broke my heart. There are books you read at moments when you need to read them and this was one of those sorts of books for me.  I was left feeling unsettled the first time I read In the Sky, and read it again to see if I could pinpoint what this book was trying to tell me.  The second read was more of a revelation, and I’m not going to discuss the reasons in any real depth because, even though I discuss books in a confessional manner, this book caused me to consider my life in a manner that I prefer not to discuss overmuch.  As much as I tend to treat this site like a diary, even I have parts of my mind that don’t need to be shown because the contemplation trumps the discussion.  That should be in itself an excellent reason for any regular reader here to read this book.  A book that helps me cauterize my continual brain bleed is a rare, interesting, compelling book.

Mirbeau is a genius.  He portrayed with great intensity a quietly malignant life, a person rotting inside because of tension and fear, a person for whom a blue sky is a crushing reminder that there is no freedom, only a mocking emptiness that can never be filled.  This is a book about a man who died while still living, who kept dying long after the disease had eaten its fill.  That Mirbeau never finished this novella makes it all the better a representation of the life half-eaten, half-lived, never complete. Ann Sterzinger is also a genius to be able to read these words in their original French and convey such exquisite misery so precisely yet with such raw, bleeding emotion.

Confessions of a Failed Egoist by Trevor Blake

Book: Confessions of a Failed Egoist

Author: Trevor Blake

Type of Book: Non-fiction, essays, philosophy, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: SubGenii Unite!

Availability: Published by Underworld Amusements in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book showed me in many ways that I have become a very bitter woman. I don’t think I am an egoist because I am sort of filled with self-loathing and seldom know what the right thing to do might be and therefore have no business using my own self as a life philosophy, but I can still see the charm in this book of short essays and articles dealing with everything from egoism to the sexual lives of the disabled to selling used books.

Blake’s style is erudite yet irreverent and breezy, almost to distraction at times. And god this book could have been better edited. It actually fell outside of my bitchy upper limit of what I can endure in regards to errors in books, but it was charming and intelligent enough to make it still worth discussing. You will also encounter words like “siphonophore” (a sort of man-of-war water creature) and improving your vocabulary via arcane words is a good thing.

Let’s begin this discussion with Blake’s definition of egoism:

Egoism is the claim that the individual is the measure of all things. In ethics, in epistemology, in aesthetics, in society, the Individual is the best and only arbitrator. Egoism claims social convention, laws, other people, religion, language, time and all other forces outside of the Individual are an impediment to the liberty and existence of the Individual. Such impediments may be tolerated but they have no special standing to the Individual, who may elect to ignore or subvert or destroy them as He can. In egoism the State has no monopoly to take tax or wage war.

Yeah, yeah, I see the appeal but in this respect I’m a pedant and anti-intellectual to boot – if I can’t see it working in real life I can’t really discuss it in much depth. Philosophies that end up stating that one of their tenets is that the State cannot tax or wage war cause me to want to discuss whether or not Ariel the Mermaid should have exchanged her fins for legs and if the exchange was worth it. Both discussions occupy the same head space in my brain.  Let’s discuss how many mermaids can dance on the head of a philosopher!

But even if I am philosophically stunted these days,  there is much in this book that resonated with me.

Godspeed, Lemmy!

I used to have dreams about Lemmy Kilmister that were Christ-like in nature. In the dreams he was always a force of moral and chaotic good, leading me to sound decisions and peace of mind. I can’t really explain why I assigned to him this sort of leadership role in my subconscious and it probably doesn’t matter. He and Christopher Walken have both been Jesus-like figures to me, Christ mixed with Loki. We all have our personal gods, and, if we dont, we should.

It seems impossible that this cigarette-cured, whiskey-soaked, womanizing rock god could possibly be dead. Surely he will rise again in some way. Until he does, check out this documentary about him, worth watching not only because it’s about Lemmy but also because the scene with Scott Ian’s reaction to Lemmy going commando in cut-off Daisy Dukes is the sort of thing you need to see. He was larger than life, badder than bad, yet had no problem with his balls falling out of his shorts. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a sign of a man who was so badass he couldn’t be bothered with social niceties like underpants. Such matters were beneath him. As well they should have been. Better to live balls-out than to become neutered and self-conscious.

God, I really loved him. “That’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever!”

Godspeed, Lemmy.

2015: Truly the Crappiest Year

This is the time of year when everyone comments on the best books they read, best movies they saw, best albums they listened to, most important political events that affected them, and basically whatever else they feel summed up their experiences during the calendar year.

The last two years of my life have been a depressive blur punctuated by extreme stress. I had calm moments, like when I proofread books for other people and when I would disappear into my office and mindlessly sew for days on end. There were brief periods when the desire to write or obsessively research grabbed hold of me, but those moments were indeed quite brief. I did very little reading because my attention span wouldn’t permit it for very long – reading for pleasure became impossible and this site suffered greatly because of it. I feel like I am coming out of it but I am also often wrong about what my brain is doing. We’ll see, but I can confidently say 2016 will be a helluva lot better than 2015.

Also 2016 will be better because I will begin to discuss the excellent media that did penetrate the blur:

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger, absolutely devastated me. I am reading it for the second time at the moment and I can’t imagine a better way to describe the last couple of years I’ve lived. The gorgeous infinity of a blue sky becomes a crushing, enveloping landscape of endless misery, and all pleasures and hopes will be devoured by that endlessness. Because I am a typical American, I can speak only the one language, so I sit in awe of any peer who is fluent in other languages. That awe is magnified when I consider how Sterzinger finessed Mirbeau’s words into a narrative that spoke directly to my own feelings, so direct and pointed and frighteningly accurate. It’s a beautiful, dark book.

Valencia by James Nulick is a memoir of a man from a fractured family, the story of a boy carelessly raised, who experienced the death of childhood while still a child, growing into a man whose peripatetic life managed to remain anchored a bit by the photographs he keeps in an old cigar box and the ties he maintained in that fractured family. It’s a memoir not so much of a phoenix rising from flames but rather a document that shows how even trees which may appear to be dead still have an endless network of living roots underground. What makes this memoir most remarkable is the way in which Nulick tells his story, in a disjointed manner that mimics the way old friends speak to one another. Nulick assumes his audience is his friend and speaks to us in a way that draws us into his story, bringing up events unknown to the reader but later expanding on those events, a hiccup in timeline that happens often when those who know each other well have conversations.

The Suiciders by Travis Jeppesen is a book I need a very clear head to discuss. I can’t even try to summarize it now. I don’t know whether I loved it or hated it. Perhaps both? Neither? It is a book that defies easy synopses and was a book I read in spurts, which made it all the harder to really grasp. I may reread it before I attempt to speak of it. But even as I have no fucking idea what this book really means to me, it’s still niggling away in the back of my head, demanding attention.

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse is a book that gave me hope regarding my own approach to my media of choice. Janisse discusses neuroses in women as depicted in horror and exploitation cinema, and she discusses these films not so much using cinematic aesthetic criteria as she uses her own personal experiences as the relevant filter for these films. Her relationship to the films were the basis of the book, even as she discussed schools of cinematic thought and psychiatric ideas. I have always filtered literature this way and I have been told by a couple of academicians that it’s a lazy, self-absorbed and ultimately useless way to discuss books. That may be so but at the same time I cannot abide a review that doesn’t tell me simply whether or not the reviewer liked the book and why. We may all find value in beautiful prose, in deft characterization, in well-constructed plots, but if the book does not move that which is you, that part of you that exists beyond education and cultured reaction, then all the authorial skill in the world is meaningless. Discussing literature or any media this way has perils – I discuss far more of my life discussing books that connect with me than some diarists and you get to see all the dirty dishes behind the kitchen door. But it’s the only way I can discuss books, and it was heartening to see this approach used by a woman who is clearly a strong thinker even as she responds with herself as the filter.

There are other books I plan to discuss, like Trevor Blake’s Confessions of a Failed Egoist, as well as what I have now come to call The Borderline Personality Potboilers – books by Gillian Flynn, Claire Messaud and Paula Hawkins. I have great hopes that 2016 will be a wholly different year and I can reconstruct this site into the place I always wanted it to be. For those who still read here, thanks for hanging on, and hopefully more will join you when OTC is updated regularly.

Have a happy holiday, however you celebrate!

The holiday onslaught is upon us

I’m a woman who enjoys the holidays despite being somewhat anti-capitalist, and, though I love a wholly just society, I tire of all the extraordinary analyses of why Thanksgiving is “problematic.”  Columbus was a madman and there’s nothing I can do about it now.  There were pioneers, now we’re all here, some of us are queer, get used to it (and over it)!

As I prepare dishes to take to a family celebration tomorrow, I will use the mental space I receive from performing repetitive tasks to plan Yule gifts I need to make or acquire. I’ll think about where we need to put the tree this year since Boo Radley is what cat experts would call “a complete disaster.” Boo will be frightened of the tree and will become so startled he will leap up into the air, crap at the apex of his ascent, and his poop will hit the ground before he does. Alternately, a strange madness will overtake him and he will race up the tree toward the ceiling, loosening every ornament as he goes, destroying hours of decorating. He will then become afraid of the tree again and this cycle will repeat itself until New Year’s Day. And let us not even speak of Grendel and the Infestation of Two and what they can do to a fully decorated tree in under three minutes of concentrated mayhem. I often feel that had we let wolves into the house it would have been more hygienic and less chaotic.

But as I fret about all the piles of glittery cat yak that are my yuletide fate and the chores I must do before 12/25, I am also thinking about those who have come and gone, the people whose lives were spent in service to their families, who spread joy to their loved ones. Who sacrificed for those they loved. My grandparents, my mother, my step-grandmother, Mr OTC’s grandparents and his step-father. These people served their countries on the home and war fronts. They raised their children to be independent and ethical. They worked jobs for decades, in some cases using skills that were forgotten for a while only to be rediscovered when we realized complete modernity wasn’t quite the utopia we had hoped.

We’ll never have a utopia. Philosophy always beckons, reality always fails. In the meantime we just need to remember those who sacrificed for us, all those people now consigned to a history that is often remembered with mawkish sentimentality or demonized as a whole. In the middle is the truth, and it’s something to be proud of.

What’s our sacrifice? Or rather, what’s mine? I don’t know yet. I don’t think we ever know, most of us, because sacrifice is seldom dramatic. It’s the scope of a life lived in service to others and to ourselves. I have no idea if the scope of my life will be remembered or if it is worthy of remembrance.

But as I ponder historical and familial sacrifice, there are pies to be baked, and I’m going to enjoy baking them and hope that others enjoy eating them. And Tony, if you are reading this, yes, there will be rice krispies treats. Lots of them. Let’s be thankful for that, if nothing else.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy – A Flay on Words

Yep. Anthropodermic bibliopegy. That’s the technical term for books bound in human skin.

I decided to write this article after I stumbled across five mentions of anthropodermic bibliopegy in a 48 hour period. I took that as a sign that books bound in human skin was a topic I needed to discuss here – synchronicity isn’t something I really put much faith in but I wager that the average person might think it a sign if she just happened upon several references to such an arcane subject.  It didn’t hurt that I found books bound in human skin extremely interesting.  Also, as I read about these books, I found myself wishing there was a master list and discussion of the more famous examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, and who better to compile a long, wordy list than me? And here we are!

Because of my interest in true crime, I knew that there were instances wherein court records were bound in the skin of executed criminals. I was also familiar with a few examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in pop culture, notably the Evil Dead films. But given the morbidity of the subject, I was surprised at how little I knew about these books, real or fictional. Books, creepy things, unsettling representations of the dead – you’d think I would have been all over this topic by now.

As I read about books bound in human skin I noticed that there was a surge of articles on the subject in the spring and summer of 2014.   Harvard University tested three suspected examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in their collections and only one was genuinely bound in human skin, the skin from a woman who spent her life in a mental asylum. Those tests spurred a media interest in anthropodermic bibliopegy, and an interest I am deeply appreciative for because otherwise I don’t think research into the topic would have been so easy.  Though several sources I read insisted that the practice of binding books in human skin was once an accepted practice, it was not a common practice and more or less ended in the late 19th century.  There are very few of these books that remain in museums and libraries.

Though the bulk of the remaining examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy are from the 18th and 19th centuries and primarily from Europe, claims that skin was used for book bindings date at least as far back as the 13th century. Prior to the development of precise scientific testing to determine skin origin, experts determined origin of skins via microscopic analysis.  Physicians and museum curators observed patterns in cuticles and tiny hair remnants left in pores after the tanning process and used those patterns to determine the animal that provided the skin.  Many books claimed to be bound in human skin were identified as such by using microscopic analysis – not many have been subjected to more modern tests.  One of best tests for animal origin of tanned skin is peptide mass fingerprinting,  which analyzes the proteins left in tanned skin.  Those proteins point to the animal the skin was taken from and though at times the protein markers show simply that the skin was taken from primates, it can be assumed that those primates were humans.  Monkeys were not thick on the ground in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  At least one book, which I will discuss, that was considered one of the best examples of a book bound in human skin, was proved to be bound in sheep or cow hide after peptide mass fingerprinting.  I suspect that a significant number of books authenticated as human skin using older, microscopic methods would not be authenticated as human if tested using peptide mass fingerprinting (and that method cannot determine who specifically donated skin as the tanning process destroys DNA).

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia currently has the largest collection of books bound in human skin in the USA, counting five total volumes, three of which were bound in skin from a single donor.  All five have been tested according to modern standards and the bindings have been proven to be of human origin. The Mütter Museum has formed a team to try to create a comprehensive list of all the examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, encouraging institutions to test all the books in their collections that are alleged to be bound in human skin:

Most institutions the team has worked with are keeping quiet, however. During her presentation at Death Salon, Rosenbloom did share the aggregate results so far: Out of the 22 books the group has tested, 12 have been found to be made out of human skin. According to one of Rosenbloom’s slides, the remainder were found to have been bound with “an assortment of sheep, cow, and faux (!) leather.” The team has also identified an additional 16 books that they have not yet tested—and is working to locate more.

I have to think that there are likely some undiscovered examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in private collections, but I think that if one of the largest known collections of books bound in human skin has only five books, perhaps the custom of binding books in human skin was indeed less common than some of the sources I consulted seem to think it was.

As I read about anthropodermic bibliopegy, the topic fell neatly into several categories: criminals whose skin was harvested after their executions; skin used from people who could not or did not give meaningful consent to have their skin used after their deaths; voluntary skin donors; books proven not to be bound in human skin after peptide mass fingerprinting; and representations of human skin-bound books in pop culture.

I found interesting a lot of the squeamishness and revulsion people feel for books bound in human skin.  Often it seemed as if this revulsion was rather selective, given some of the truly macabre museum exhibits that exist, from the entirety of the Mütter Museum to the visually disturbing but excellently bizarre flayed Musee Fragonard exhibits.  It seems strange to be upset about a book bound in human skin when you can see dissected bodies on display in medical museums, bodies that were often curated without the consent of the person when he or she was alive.  However, the longer I read about this topic, the more I found myself feeling a bit uneasy about some of the examples of books bound in human flesh.  I am unsure if this is a 21st century mentality. Perhaps it is because I am accustomed to patient/family consent in medical and funeral procedures.  Or maybe my discomfort is linked with my identification with the underclasses who ended up providing most of the skins used to bind books.  I wonder if others who immerse themselves in this topic find themselves growing a bit indignant about the fates of some of the people who provided their skins.

Please note that I exercised some discretion that may seem offensive since I am not an antiquarian, book binder or scientist, but you will find that there are some “authentic books” that I think are unlikely to be bound in human skin.  Sometimes I left the books with questionable authenticity in the “real” sections and sometimes I put them in the “fake” section.   Generally the “authentic” examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy that I place in the hoaxes or disproved section are pretty egregious fakes.