Beneath the Skin

Meanwhile, in the Stacks...

The mention of Houghton Library usually evokes, first and foremost, an inquisitive stare. “Houghton? What’s that? Oh, the building between Widener and Lamont? Like where Pusey is?” Those who have heard of the place before are usually no better at guessing what goes on inside. “I heard it’s a restricted library,” someone told me, not too long ago, when I told him I work there. “You have to get permission to go in.”

Some people, however, venture to ask me about the human-skin-bound book. “Wait, isn’t that where they keep it?” they say, their expressions a mix of disgust and wonder, something that only the bizarre can catalyze. “Have you ever seen it?”

I chuckle, sighing internally. I have seen the human-skin-bound book—seen it but not touched it. My supervisors had called it up for an interview with The Crimson in which I was supposed to partake; the interviewer never came, but I went down to their office in the basement anyway. It lay on the other side of the table, across from me, its unassuming leather covering indistinguishable from its living form. Human leather is eerily similar to pigskin.

Like most of my peers, I was aware that the book existed even before I arrived at Harvard. It became international news on June 2014, when biological tests confirmed the composition of its cover. All of them mentioned the provenance of the skin used to bind the book. The Crimson, in an article from 2006, describes it best when quoting from “[n]otes from a now-missing typed memorandum”: “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.”

When matters such as this come to light, it is fascinating to observe what the media deems worthy of note—what vehicles of mass communication believe will attract the broadest readership.

CNN, for instance, dedicated an entire section of its story on the issue to the biological tests effected on cover samples of the book. The New York Times only revealed that “the book was bound in skin taken from the back of a woman,” making no reference to the aforementioned details run in The Crimson. Most sources were simple summaries and rewordings of two Houghton Library blog posts—one from May 24, 2014, announcing the book’s existence, and one from June 4, confirming that it was indeed bound in human skin. All of them referenced the book’s author, Arsène Houssaye, and his explanation for his binding decision: “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” None of them wondered about the true owner of the leather of the book’s cover.

That disembodied skin, however, once belonged to an individual as complex as the book’s author or anyone reading this article. She did not consent to have her skin turned into a book’s cover. The fact that her body was unclaimed upon her death objectified her in a very literal manner, something that very few people seemed disposed to discuss when Houghton’s skin-bound book became a Harvard must-see. The covering of Houssaye’s forgotten volume about the soul, in its own author’s view, was supposed to dignify it; to judge from the reactions of a 21st century audience, it seems that the “human covering” was a disservice to that humanizing mission.

The book bound in human skin, like every other item at Houghton, has a fascinating story behind it; as one associate librarian affirmed, however, the volume was “one of the author’s lesser works.” Its cover might be peculiar, but its content does not attract international attention. That is the exception to the rule. The library contains almost 30 centuries of other extraordinary stories waiting to be uncovered by Harvard undergraduates—who, by the way, do not need permission to enter Houghton. It is home to the illustrious and the anonymous; the hallowed and the profane; the commonplace and the unconventional; the traditional and the bizarre. Throughout this semester, I hope to highlight some of the best stories hiding beneath the Yard’s southeast corner—and to encourage you, reader, to go find your own personal favorite. Take some time off your problem set, make your way to the Houghton Reading Room, and call something up from the stacks. You never know what you might find, but I can assure you it won’t disappoint.

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