Bound in Skin


It only takes a few strips of flesh. Thin things from the legs, the hair still on them. I would do it with a knife. I’d carve a long thin rectangle. It was enough, back then, to take at least five rectangles, one point nine inches in width and twelve inches in height, from the back of each of the calves. These strips were bound together to create the binding of a quarto. It’s true that skin from the back is easiest to work with, but I found early on that it is worse for the donor’s health. As such, we only did it under dire circumstances. But when working with corpses, I took every inch of the skin on their backs, leaving the muscles in the shoulders exposed. I didn’t take any more than this. Not back then.

I knew that there was a market for it, but I hadn’t yet gotten a grasp on what it was. If you had told me five years ago that I would be doing this full time, I wouldn’t have believed you. Five years ago I was waiting tables for a pizza restaurant, my legs too old to do the walking they needed. Once every few months, I got a contract, took the grafts on the weekend, and bound them for a few hours every night until the job was done. It was rich people then, masochistic hedge-fund managers seeking an exotic thrill and deranged celebrities wanting to bind their memoirs up in their skin.

I can’t stress enough the psychological effect of having the words you’ve written bound in your own skin. In having words torn from your mind, there is always some sense of estrangement. The text, in the act of being written, becomes estranged from you. That’s obvious, I guess. It’s not something I came up with. There aren’t any ways to resolve this, not fully, but there are ways in which we try. The name on the cover, the title, these are ways of exerting our power over the text. Maybe it has left us, but we still named it, defined it, stamped our family name upon it. 

In this same way, a parent controls their children. Some deal with the violence of a will besides their own by leaving their bastards with nothing, refusing to claim their offspring as their own. Kafka wanted his books burned. When this happens we usually list the author as Unknown, as Anonymous, as an unnamed narrator. But this is few and far between, and oftentimes when it happens it is accidental, the author’s name smudged out by the heat or left un-copied by some long-dead idiot monk. We always want control of what we create.

It is for this reason that there is a larger market for anthropodermic bibliopegy than I, or anyone, had suspected back in the day. Every day in our literate society, words are torn from us. This is what literacy is, what it means when put into place. People write for a living, and in doing so they lose something actual. I don’t only mean “writers”. I mean anyone who sends a message, writes a memo, sends an email. They lose the parts of themselves they have not expressed and they bring into light some dark shadow. Sometimes, they wish they could take it back inside of themselves.


It was my son who first noticed. He was reading a book he wasn’t supposed to be reading, a freckled book left behind and tucked in the space behind the books on my shelf. One of the masochists had written something of a pamphlet for their desires, a thin thing of only eight pages, the leaves at the start and end blank. It was its length which helped my son remember that when he had read it the first time it was a much different text.

I remembered this too, because I had bound the book and because I had seen how little the girlfriend seemed interested. The contrast stuck out in my mind, the sadness of the thing. When he didn’t pick it up, I wasn’t surprised. I have several volumes from those days, books the perverts paid for and never picked up. I never expected it to be this way. I shelved them away and forgot about them. That my son had read it once and then tried to read it a second time wasn’t his fault. It was a problem borne of my own neglect. I should have kept it on a higher shelf. A thirteen year old shouldn’t be reading something like that. More than anything, it upset me that he went back to it as if there was anything appealing about it, anything in it worth a second read.

When he said that the book had changed, he seemed concerned. I refrained from scolding him and tried to ease his worries. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to do so; the book had changed. It was now about the man’s penis being impaled by a nail. For weeks I took pictures of the four pages. I’d get home, and without washing the smell of dough from my hands, I’d handle the smooth skin and peel the same pages apart from each other. 

It happened slowly; a sentence would edit itself. ‘I would yell’ became ‘I would scream in agony’. ‘The nail driven wordlessly into the shaft’ became ‘a nail longer than my entire penis hammered in by a laughing woman, taunting me’. Soon the editing sped past line edits. The scenario started to include more people. By the end of the first month there was a whole room of people laughing, passing the hammer around. By the end of the next month his entire family was watching in shame. 

Around the same time that he was being broadcast on one of the big screens at Times Square, I was contacted by one of the celebrities I had bound a book for, a memoir which sold modestly. Her skin was soft and had a preponderance of faint moles. The book she had written was changing. After the book was published, she discovered that her late mother spent years trying to sabotage her career. In acts of subterfuge too small to be caught by any individual person, she would go to the comedy clubs her daughter was performing at and attempt to turn the booking agents against her. She had heard all of these ridiculous stories of the mother saying that her daughter was racist, that she needed to return her daughter to a mental asylum, stories that would easily be dismissed if they hadn’t come from so many different sources.

When the comedienne tried to find a reason for this, she had an awful time of it. She decided to re-read her own memoir and review the anecdotes for any signs of betrayal. What she found disturbed her. Not only were some sections of the book completely different from what she had written, the entire text had a hateful attitude towards her mother.

She called me because she thought that I had written an alternative memoir to prank her. It was irrational, but the situation was irrational; I would have done the same thing. I explained the situation and she only barely believed me. Back then there were only twenty-some books in the world bound in human skin, and these books were rarely read, usually encased in glass. Maybe no one has ever noticed before, I told her.


In the following weeks I spent time researching. I thought that I knew everything about anthropodermic bibliopegy— and that wasn’t far from the truth— but what stood out for me then, rereading the stories which had piqued my interest when I first decided to tan human skin for myself, were the stories of murderers and thieves binding their stories in their own skin upon death, sealing confessions in their own body. It seemed to me like a penance, a refusal to allow the words leave the action from itself, a way to immortalize these actions in their reality.

These books, as far as anyone could tell, had never changed, yet the books that I had bound were. Around this time I contacted a few of my former clients and asked them to look at the books I had bound for them, to tell me if there was anything different. Almost all of them said that there was. The question now was if books bound in human skin all had this strange power or if it was something in me.

I took the opportunity to teach my son how to tan leather and how to bind a book together. I had been wanting to teach him my trade so that someone might carry it on. He had seen some of it before– of course he had— but he had never held the fleshing knife in his hand. When he finally did, he held it like you would a butter knife. I showed him how to hold it proper, but still his hand slacked. Jagged, he cut from my left shoulder a chunk of flesh six inches wide and eight inches tall. It was incredibly painful. He wasn’t strong enough to do it mercifully, all in one go, and so the blood ran out and slicked his hand. He thought that his hesitation would show me that he didn’t want to hurt me, but it only hurt me more. Still, it showed me he cared. It would obviously have been off-putting if he hadn’t hesitated at all.

When the wound was bandaged we soaked it. In the afternoon I showed him how to lime. The next morning I had him scud the rest of the hair off. Watching him work with my skin was a privilege.

We bound a small book written by my son, words which said exactly what he thought was going to happen in a movie we were going to see. We went to the movie as a treat. On the drive home he said that he thought the main character was boring. When we got back and looked at the book, it said that he thought that the main character was very attractive. I told him in certain terms that I accepted him no matter who he loved. He looked embarrassed still.

I think I overreacted. Made too big a thing of it. At the time I thought he was afraid of me, that he had lied out of fear. Maybe he did. But maybe still he lied because he was thirteen and I am his mother. This moment passed. We now knew that any book bound in human skin changed with its author.


Through some of my richer patrons, I got in touch with scientists who wanted to look at the books. I took less shifts, working instead to re-create the results they found. I was getting paid for it, the binding, but it wasn’t as much as the scientists were getting paid, and it was barely enough to scrape by. I thought I loved binding books more than being a waitress, but over time I realized I liked both equally.

I find that scientists have obnoxious senses of humor, and the contents of the books I had to bind were repulsive to me. They tried to see how little and how greatly they could change the book, but with such a small scale— folios bound by skin from willing subjects, paid one hundred and fifty dollars each— it was hard to accomplish anything. A few of these covers were beautiful works— some of the greatest works of my career, especially given the short turnaround— but the contents were typically odious, these highly contextual in-jokes between the scientists. The contents of a book are often far less beautiful than their covers. This is not interesting.

What is interesting was seeing if a book got more or less beautiful over time, seeing how the text changed. Books in this stage were written by the scientists and then transcribed by the test subjects. In their original states, they could be overwritten and pretentious faux-romantic poems, or they could be stock paragraphs about hyper-specific uninteresting subjects, but in almost every case they were simplified as soon as you opened them up again; turned into platitudes about what love really is, or rudimentary and inaccurate statements about nonfiction topics that the transcriber didn’t really understand.

I didn’t get fired at the pizza parlor outright, I was getting scheduled less and less, and when I worked, I worked slowly. I always felt some shame about what I was doing with the books. I never told any of my coworkers. They didn’t need another reason to think of me as old and scary. One day I showed up and a busboy I hadn’t seen in some time said he was shocked I was still alive. I decided I would quit.

My son grew a bit farther from me. I wanted him to help me bind, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t share my passion. Before I could really tell what was happening, he was a sophomore in high school. He got on the bus in the morning and when it dropped him off in the afternoon he went into his room.


The findings came out and they were unanimous. There were peer reviews to be done, but this had nothing to do with my work. I was interviewed a few times and I was subject to intense scrutiny from the media. It didn’t mean anything to me. They didn’t  really care about the books. The researchers decided that the books could be used as a means of therapy. Patients could discover what they were truly thinking. I received a bonus that would let me and my son live— without me binding books or waiting tables— for about three years. It was around then that I became depressed. I felt my work was seen less as art than as a curiosity or an advancement. This singular effect of the thing became all that it was. I missed my work, but I didn’t want to do it anymore.

After some time, a startup offered me a role as the Lead Bookbinder. Most kinds of book binding were already automated, but human skin has more plasticity and breaks easier. The machines couldn’t handle it yet; it could only be done through manufacture. To that effect, my job would be to teach younger bookbinders how to bind books. The salary was too high to say no to.                             

I accepted the position and got to work the following week. My son was graduating from high school, and I offered him a job in the factory. He said no. Of course he said no.

The work wasn’t satisfying. None of the people I was teaching had any passion for it. That was fine, but it hardly helped my creative block. I think there were certain things in the structure of the business that stopped them from understanding the art of it. For one thing, there was a different department— of clinics and doctors and nurses— responsible for taking the skin grafts. This already took the intimacy away. When you don’t know who the skin came from, you don’t understand the importance of it. At best, they saw it as raw material; at worst, they found it disgusting.

Most dropped out of the apprenticeship after a few weeks, but they were replaced quickly. The cost of labor was high. The higher-ups weren’t sure anyone wanted to do this. I worked for months and months with a series of incompetent and artless binders. I started to feel like an executioner more than an artisan. I went a long time without seeing my son, and when I called him, the conversations were brief.

It was about when I decided to quit my job that I received a raise. I told myself that I would just keep working for a little bit longer, a year or two, to save up enough money to pay for my son’s tuition. I resolved quite sincerely to quit. But over the course of the next year, slowly but surely, things at work built momentum. At some point I forgot. People stayed longer. The binding got more intricate. The people I supervised were beginning to see why I liked it.

The years went by quickly. For a long time I wanted to write a book, a memoir about my discovery of what books did, and the whole process of creating them. Now I don’t think it will happen, and I don’t really know why. It might have something to do with the fact that I would be obligated to bind it in skin. It would have its utility, too— I know that if I bound it in skin and left some empty pages at the end, it would be an encyclopedia on my knowledge about the process that would write itself as I learned. But I’m not sure that that matters to me. I only give instructions to my trainees orally and I’ve never written a manual.

It’s always been that way and it probably always will be. I just can’t imagine having them read anything. They never have to read anything. It’s always just the covers. I don’t want to change that. 

If I did write a book, I imagine it would be something like this but longer. It would say more about my son. I guess it would be more personal. And again, bound in skin.