Snobbish about books….

I am completely first world when it comes to my agitations. Here is a totally trivial unease of mine.

Very judgementally I have decided that if my cost centres don’t enjoy reading — likelihood of abandonment is high. Please don’t cock that eyebrow at me — anyone who is a familiar recognises me for the snob I am. I have deliberated over discarding friends who don’t enjoy reading and I believe I may have renounced ‘friends’ who have proudly declared that they don’t read (the nerve of these people!) As you can tell, I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to the paper arts. From enlightenment to creativity to eloquence to evolving the world around you, reading has the power to make us more thoughtful open minded people and that is only a good thing in my book.

Mulling my delight of books reminded me of the introduction of the printing press as this technology revolutionised the dissemination of information by ushering in the mass production of the printed page. A side effect was to challenge existing power structures as more people gained access to knowledge. Printing originated in China in around 868 AD (history.com) and although it became wide spread across Japan and Korea, China was still the first to create moveable type. c150 years later in Europe, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the Gutenberg press which unlike the Chinese wood version was made with metal. The first book to be published in Europe was the Gutenberg Bible. Approximately 1300 pages, printed 180 times. That’s quite surreal considering that in present times thousands of books are ‘published’ a day.

As a youngster every weekend I used to spend hours in the local library absorbed in all sorts of adventures of the paper kind. Even today I cannot go anywhere without a book on my person; I feel naked, irresponsible, a waster of precious knowledge time. But here’s the weird thing. I also have a proclivity for the physicality of a book. The smell, the heft or delicacy of its weight, the way the pages flick, the intrigue of a cover design that varies by country. All this makes a paper book special. It isn’t that I can’t appreciate an electronic book; cost centre 2 couldn’t read any other way. But to my dated mind, it’s a rather one dimensional medium. And obviously throwing a hard back has much more of an impact on your victim than a kindle. A totally under rated use.

But beware what you ask for. I’ve discovered some very physical books. Bound in human skin.

Because this wasn’t as uncommon a convention, there is a term for the custom of making such books. Anthropodermic bibliopegy. As you’ve anticipated, books covered in this way are quite morally disturbing although thankfully this is a historic practice. One of the earliest surviving examples in the UK was wrapped in skin from the first man to be hanged at Bristol gaol. Another one has been bound by the skin of a murderer. A book discovered at Harvard utilised skin from a mentally ill female patient who died naturally — but no consent was obtained. Two books, on the request of a prisoner, were covered with his own skin as he wanted one to be presented to a person he had tried to rob. No — I’m not sure that would make me feel forgiveness either.

In photos of these books, it’s quite hard to visually differentiate between ones enclosed with human skin from those wrapped with leather but according to Wikipedia there are multiple techniques to do so (in case you have started to be concerned about your book collection). One approach is to look at the pattern of hair follicles; another is DNA testing. However in the process of ’tanning’ the skin, DNA can be destroyed so it is not fool proof. A further approach is to test the collagen using mass spectrometry.

As I was delving into this murky world I came across some strange book facts:

  • The fear of running out of something to read is called Abibliophobia.
  • In Medieval times ‘dismembered books were to have a second life’ by being turned into clothes for the monks. As described by a commentator, ‘they became travellers in time, stowaways… with great and important stories to tell’ .
  • The most expensive book in the world was published by Leonardo Da Vinci, purchased by Bill Gates for $30.8m.
  • In America, The Harry Potter books are the most banned sets of books as they are seen to promote witchcraft or are perceived as too dark.
  • Bibliosmia is the love of smelling old books and you can order the scent — it is called Powells by Powells (catchy huh?)

So there is a peculiar side to the world of books granted but I think Stephen King said it best when he stated ‘Books are uniquely portable magic’. I’m sure if you are a reader of my blog, you’ll agree….and if so we can remain friends…..

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Curious Rascal

I want to learn and understand more of the the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random. Join me if you feel the same!