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Poems bound up in a human skin

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At first glance, its just an old book of poems, bound in slightly grubby beige leather with gold lettering and gold-edged pages.

But open it up and you might want to drop it and recoil when you read the inscription on the first page - "Bound in human skin".

The book, part of the National Library's collection, is one of only two known examples in Australia of anthropodermic binding, a practice that is described in book collecting circles as not rare, but uncommon.

Binding books in human skin dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and is usually seen on the odd medical textbook in the libraries of eminent universities, although there are examples throughout history of books bound in the skin of criminals or dead lovers.

The National Library's version, with its macabre handwritten inscription, bellies the rather mundane contents pastoral poems by five second-rate 18th century poets.

Manuscripts librarian Elizabeth Caplice says there is no way of knowing whose skin it was, or even why it was bound this way in the first place.

The tanning process would have destroyed all traces of DNA, and were it not for the inscription, its gruesome origins could well have been overlooked, resembling as it does ordinary pig or calfskin.

The library has no shortage of exotically bound books - rare books reference librarian Andrew Sergeant has handled volumes bound in stingray, emu, snake and mother-of-pearl, to name a few.

But none comes close to this unprepossessing volume of English poems, which is part of one of the library's founding collections, the Petherick collection, acquired from Australian bookseller and collector Edward Petherick in 1911.

Mr Petherick's vast collection would become the basis of the Australiana section of what was then the Commonwealth National Library (now the National Library of Australia).

But he was also a great bargain hunter, and it's likely that he came across this book somewhere in London, saw it as a fascinating curio and added it to his own collection, without knowing anything about its origins.

And the book itself, first published in Paris in 1829, gives little away.

Another version, in its original French binding, is also in the library's collection, but, as evidenced by a small sticker on the inside of the cover, at some stage, this one was taken to a bookbinder on Fleet Street in London, called C.Egleston, who bound it in human skin.

Ms Caplice, who began researching the book in response to a request from a Melbourne writer, said all inquiries led to - ahem - a dead end when she discovered the bookbinder's premises had burnt down in the 1890s.

She said such books were often the subject of great controversy when they surfaced on the open market, because the practice of binding books in human skin was often associated with Nazism.

Even though this book dates back to some time well before World War II, stories of lampshades made of the skin of Holocaust victims often come to mind, although such stories have never been verified.

"[Such books] are so rarely connected with the Nazis, and only a minority are acts of atrocity," she said.

"The Nazi connection is not prominent its more to do with human history. Medical research was done with cadavers, and medical books were bound with materials to hand at the time."

But even though this version is much more recent than the medical textbook examples, she pointed out that it was bound during the Victorian period, a time of great deference and drama when it came to relics of the dead.

"Back when these were most frequently produced, it was just a different view of life and death," she said.

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