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Mutter Museum

The Bizarre Art of Binding Books in Human Skin

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Mutter Museum

Helpful as its developments are, the field of modern medicine can be macabre, sickening, and even downright strange. We’ve left the leeches and holy water in the Middle Ages (for the most part), but some of the ideas that doctors have cooked up in the past two centuries in the name of science have exceeded anything ever done over a twitching plague victim. One such head-scratcher is a hobby of 19th century physician Joseph Leidy, who remembered his deceased patients by tanning their skin and using it to bind his favorite medical textbooks.

Yes, you read that right.

The dedication on the frontispiece of Leidy’s personal copy of his book An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy reads:

“The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.” 

The binding itself looks soft, almost tender in its smooth beige ridges. One wonders what part of that nameless corporal or private it came from.

The bizarre art of binding books in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 17th century, and involves flaying the body and tanning the skin just like any other type of leather. It has most often been used by doctors as a way to honor a deceased patient or medical colleague, meaning that many surviving examples are anatomical texts such as Leidy’s. Several American universities, including Harvard and the University of Georgia, quietly keep an anthropodermic book or two (Brown supposedly has three), and the University of Pennsylvania library had to put in a distress call to the Admissions office after a tour guide happened to mention their rare skin-bound copy of Biblotheque Nationale and the library was flooded with curious potential students.

The donor of UPenn’s anthropodermic treasure, John Stockton Hough, was in fact a colleague of Dr. Leidy, a prominent Philadelphia physician who taught in the university’s dissection labs in the 1850s through the 1880s. Fairly obscure today, Leidy was well regarded in his lifetime as an anatomist, zoologist, paleontologist, and parasite expert. Besides publishing his anatomical treatise and treating Pennsylvania’s Civil War wounded, he put together the first near-complete skeleton of dinosaur fossils found in New Jersey and became an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Today, Leidy’s collection is on display at the College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum of medical oddities (a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Philly and hankering for a gallstone collection or a couple of deformed fetuses in jars). The dimly-lit shelf where Leidy’s book sits quietly next to a human-skin wallet and other examples of memorial tannery appears to be regarded impassively by a collection of European skulls, flanked by a section of primate skulls for comparison and by a handful of antique gynecological instruments. Elsewhere in the museum, on the floor above the death cast of conjoined “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng Bunker and the world’s largest colon, lies one of Leidy’s other great donations, a cadaver known as the Soap Lady: her 200-year-old corpse took on its black, sticky appearance when the heat and pressure of her grave transformed the fat in her body into a soapy substance called adipocere.

The emphasis of both the display of Dr. Leidy’s skin-bound books and the museum as a whole is that the curiosities on display are there for educational and even artistic purposes; they’re not simply freaks, or unfortunate quirks of the gene pool, but deeply human artifacts that can help us to riddle out the mysteries of disease and suffering. Just as the cadavers in his 1800s dissecting classroom helped Leidy teach his students the internal wonders of the human body, his book collection helps us to puzzle out what’s left on the outside after we die, and how it can be useful or beautiful when preserved from the ravages of time and decay.

Barnes & Noble bookstores’ website still offers a free copy of Leidy’s anatomical treatise, by the way, reprinted from the 1889 edition. It’s only an e-book, though, so the skin binding will have to be left up to you.  

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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