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Harvard discovers three of its library books are bound in human flesh

Harvard discovers three of its library books are bound in human flesh

Harvard discovers three of its library books are bound in human flesh

There’s something undeniably creepy about big, expansive libraries. The hushed whispers, the almost artificial quiet, and the smell of dusty tomes combine to create a surreal experience. But when it comes to creepy libraries, Harvard University might take the cake… you see, at least two of its books are bound in human skin.

A few years ago, three separate books were discovered in Harvard University’s library that had particularly strange-looking leather covers. Upon further inspection, it was discovered that the smooth binding was actually human flesh… in one case, skin allegedly harvested from a man who was flayed alive. Yep, definitely the creepiest library ever.


As it turns out, the practice of using human skin to bind books was actually pretty popular during the 17th century. It’s referred to as Anthropodermic bibliopegy and proved pretty common when it came to anatomical textbooks. Medical professionals would often use the flesh of cadavers they’d dissected during their research. Waste not, want not, I suppose.


Harvard’s creepy books deal with Roman poetry, French philosophy,  and a treatise on medieval Spanish law for which the previously mentioned flayed skin was supposedly used. The book, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias… has a very interesting inscription inside, as The Harvard Crimson reports.

The book’s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: ‘the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.’

Years later, the infamous “flayed skin book” had garnered so much attention on campus that Harvard went ahead and had the thing tested, concluding that it was likely a morbid 17th century joke. Despite the creepy inscription, their tests showed that the book’s cover was actually made out of a mixture of “cattle and pig collagen”. Hey, two genuine flesh-books out of three ain’t bad.

According to Director of University Libraries Sidney Verba ’53, there are almost certainly more of the human flesh-books out there, but while it’s possible to touch the two identified skin-books in Harvard’s rare book room, the librarians aren’t exactly fond of all the attention they’ve received lately (even inciting a few tepid responses to this very post). In fact, they’ve made it a point to downplay their ownership of the real flesh-bound books in favor of reminding the media that one of them is fake. Nice try.


If you do decide to head to Harvard and check out the books for yourself, do us a favor – just don’t read them out loud. We all know how that ends.

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Tasha Harrison on self publishing: ‘I was sick of rejection’

Tasha Harrison on self publishing: ‘I was sick of rejection’

After trying to publish her work through traditional routes for 10 years, Tasha Harrison decided to take control and self-publish.

• Tasha Harrison was recommended by readers greenawayzoo and LS Young. Scroll down to recommend your own favourite self-published books

Tasha Harrison

‘Self-publishing has been liberating’… Tasha Harrison. Photograph: Tasha Harrison

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I first had interest from a literary agent back in 2001, after sending out a stack of manuscripts. It eventually came to nothing, but at the time I was over the moon just to have confirmation I could write. A year later, after another mass send-out, I found another literary agent who took me on but, unfortunately, she was unable to sell my book, Package Deal. After that disappointment, I told her I was thinking of self-publishing but she didn’t think it was a good idea, so we parted ways. This was 2004 – before the rise of ebooks and the birth of Facebook and Twitter. My husband, Chris, runs a graphic design agency so he helped me to design a cover for Package Deal and we printed a few hundred copies. He also set up a website for me to sell them through. I had no marketing plan but to my amazement several branches of Waterstones in East Sussex took it on, as well as a few independent bookshops. I also got a tiny bit of publicity although most of the press refuse to review self-published books. All in all, I probably sold around 150 copies – but most of those were to friends.

Despite making a loss, it wasn’t completely in vain. I sent off 50 of my new paperbacks and the first three chapters of my next novel, Hot Property, to another round of agents. Before long, I landed myself a new agent who was absolutely certain she could sell Hot Property. But after several drafts, she seemed less keen and told me to write something else, so I did, my third book – Pearls. When I submitted the manuscript, however, she turned it down and politely let me go. To say I was gutted was an understatement. I felt I’d reached the end of the road. It was then 2011. For 10 years, I’d been trying to find a way in, but it was “access denied” every time.

I put my books to one side for a year – I had enough to keep me busy working part-time as a copywriter and looking after two young children. Then Chris got wind of people self-publishing on Amazon and suggested I give it a go. As it would cost us nothing – Package Deal and Hot Property had already been edited and proofread, and Chris could sort out the covers – it was a no-brainer. I was sick of rejection and waiting for agents to get back to me while my books waited in slushpiles. That route clearly didn’t work and I’d wasted enough time trying it. It was time to try something else, so in early 2012, I self-published with Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).

Tell us a bit about the books

Package Deal is a comedy about a group of British holidaymakers whose lives become entangled on the Greek island of Kefalonia. It’s told from several characters’ perspectives, including lone traveller Mia who has a more specific reason for going to Kefalonia than her neighbouring counterparts.

Hot Property is also a comedy, this time about a group of British expats who are all chasing the sun, sea and sand dream in Crete, but whose plans for an idyllic lifestyle come a cropper thanks to a handsome but devious property dealer.

My third novel, Pearls, is different. It’s set in England, and is about three women – a reformed alcoholic, a cleaner and a career-driven magazine designer – whose lives converge when they each try to follow or resist fate.

My first two books are beach reads – sort of EastEnders meets Shirley Valentine. My third is a little more serious than the previous two, although it still has a comic element. If I had to put all three books under one umbrella, I suppose it would be “feel-good fiction“. All three books are currently only available as ebooks.

What are the positives of self-publishing?

I’m in control – well, more than I was, at any rate. My books are selling and people are contacting me to say how much they’ve enjoyed reading them. I’ve waited a long time to have that satisfaction! I have instant access to my sales figures, can change my cover image, price and content whenever I want and work to my own deadlines. I’m not worrying too much about what genre I fall under, either. Overall, self-publishing has been liberating.

And the negatives?

Marketing. I’m building a readership from scratch, progress is slow and I’m learning on the job. I joined Twitter and set up a Facebook author page the same day I uploaded my first two books to Amazon – hardly a marketing plan. At first, I found it nerve-wracking interacting with other people on Twitter, asking for advice and feedback. However, I’ve met some lovely authors that way and have learned a lot from them. I’ve also met some lovely readers. Twitter is a great networking tool but it’s not a bookselling tool, although it can be useful when running a free promotion, which I’ve experimented with a few times. Overall, finding the time to market my books and write the next one is the biggest challenge – there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

How are you pricing your books?

When I first uploaded my books, I priced them at £2.99 each (allowing me 70% royalties). After a good start and a successful summer last year that surpassed my expectations, my sales plummeted overnight last September and trickled in over the winter. Suddenly, my future in self-publishing was looking a lot less rosy. I got a bit obsessed with what could possibly have caused such a sudden, dramatic drop in my sales. I came up with various theories – Amazon’s algorithms, the sudden expansion of Amazon into other countries, perhaps my books only have summer time appeal, etc – until, eventually, I realised there was nothing I could do about it. Reluctantly, I dropped the price to 99p, which reduced my royalties to 35%. My reasoning was that it was still early days and I wanted to encourage readers to take a chance on me. Sales have picked up considerably since then.

In my first year of self-publishing, I sold over 1,500 books. In the first half of this year I’ve sold 2,000. For someone who thought they’d be lucky to sell 100, that’s pretty good going!

Have you worked with an editor or designer on the novel?

I edited my first two novels under the guidance of the agents I had at the time, but with my third, Pearls, I was on my own. I sent it to my friend Jo Dearden – a fellow copywriter who I used to work with – and paid her to help me edit and proofread it. She made valid points, spotted inconsistencies and threw ideas on to the pitch. Then it was really hard to know when to follow her advice and when to stick to my guns. As for a designer, I’m very fortunate that my husband has designed all my covers – although I have to do all his proofreading in return!

Do you think this is important?

Professional proofreading and cover design is crucial. I think it’s best to view these services as an investment rather than a cost. When my local Waterstones took Package Deal on a few years back, they looked at the cover, read the blurb and said “yes”. I was astonished. I thought they’d take a few weeks to consider it. But that’s how we all buy books – the cover draws you in, so you read the blurb. If the blurb appeals, you buy the book. So those two elements are essential to get right.

As for proofreading, it’s not humanly possible to spot every one of your typos among 80,000 words – you need a few fresh pairs of eyes. Saying that, I’ve yet to read a traditionally published book without a single typo in it. With regards to editing, it’s important, but I think it’s more subjective. An editor can provide a lot of insightful advice, but you don’t have to follow it all if it doesn’t feel right.

Would you self-publish again?

Yes. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, Blown-Away Man, about an advertising executive who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after having a bombshell dropped on him at a school reunion. I’m also working on a collection of humorous children’s stories, called The Adventures of Fartina Gasratilova. Both books have samples on my blog and should be ready to publish by the end of the year.

A short passage from Pearls

You don’t remember the last time you slapped me, do you?’ said Katherine.

How Miriam wanted to wipe her 15-year-old daughter’s mocking expression from her face right there and then.

‘OK, I’ll tell you,’ Katherine sighed. ‘It was a few days ago when you accused me of not telling you that I’d be staying the night at Samantha’s. Only I did tell you. I’d even written you a note, just in case you forgot about it. Later I found my note and showed it to you and instead of apologising to me you slapped me. I said it was no wonder Julian was avoiding you, ‘cos who wants to spend all their time with a pisshead? You slapped me again, and that time, I slapped you back.’

Miriam had no recollection of any of this. She wouldn’t put it past her angry, rebellious daughter to make it all up just to get back at her.

‘You’re –’ She hesitated.

‘Lying?’ Katherine laughed. ‘Jesus, Mum. You really don’t remember a thing, do you? Weird … I wonder if this is what it’s like to live with someone with Alzheimer’s?’

Miriam exploded. ‘GET OUT!’

Katherine saluted her. ‘Adios, amigo.’ She opened the door and hopped out.

Miriam sped off, nearly colliding with another vehicle and bolting through a red light.

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Amazon Buys Goodreads

Amazon purchase of Goodreads stuns book industry

Alarm from Authors’ Guild, and many Goodreads users, over ‘shocking vertical integration’ but at least one writer declares move ‘cool’


Goodreads news, bad news? The Goodreads website

“Truly devastating” for some authors but “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with” for another, Amazon’s announcement late last week that it was buying the hugely popular reader review site Goodreads has sent shockwaves through the book industry.

The acquisition, terms of which Amazon.com did not reveal, will close in the second quarter of this year. Goodreads, founded in 2007, has more than 16m members, who have added more than four books per second to their “want to read” shelves over the past 90 days, according to Amazon. The internet retailer’s vice president of Kindle content, Russ Grandinetti, said the two sites “share a passion for reinventing reading”.

“Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike,” said Grandinetti, announcing the buy. Goodreads co-founder Otis Chandler said the deal with Amazon meant “we’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world”, adding on his blog that “we have no plans to change the Goodreads experience and Goodreads will continue to be the wonderful community we all cherish”.

But despite Chandler’s reassurances, many readers and authors reacted negatively to the news. American writers’ organisation the Authors’ Guild called the acquisition a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” which meant that “Amazon’s control of online bookselling approaches the insurmountable”. Bestselling legal thriller author Scott Turow, president of the Guild, said it was “a textbook example of how modern internet monopolies can be built”.

“The key is to eliminate or absorb competitors before they pose a serious threat,” said Turow. “With its 16 million subscribers, Goodreads could easily have become a competing online bookseller, or played a role in directing buyers to a site other than Amazon. Instead, Amazon has scuttled that potential and also squelched what was fast becoming the go-to venue for online reviews, attracting far more attention than Amazon for those seeking independent assessment and discussion of books. As those in advertising have long known, the key to driving sales is controlling information.”

Turow was joined in his concerns by members of Goodreads, many of whom expressed their fears about what the deal would mean on Chandler’s blog. “I have to admit I’m not entirely thrilled by this development,” wrote one of the more level-headed commenters. “As a general rule I like Amazon, but unless they take an entirely 100% hands-off attitude toward Goodreads I find it hard to believe this will be in the best interest for the readers. There are simply too many ways they can interfere with the neutral Goodreads experience and/or try to profit from the strictly volunteer efforts of Goodreads users.”

But not all authors were against the move. Hugh Howey, author of the smash hit dystopian thriller Wool – which took off after he self-published it via Amazon – said it was “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with”. While Howey predicted “a lot of hand-wringing over the acquisition”, he said there were “so many ways this can be good for all involved. I’m still trying to think of a way it could suck.”

“Right now, I spend a lot of time on both sites in both capacities,” said Howey. “My guess is that we won’t see many changes at all. I’m betting that the real acquisition here is all the data behind the scenes. The algorithms that tell me what to buy (and almost always nail it) are going to get better. The social networks that feed my reading habit are going to get stronger. The people who helped make Goodreads awesome are going to get richer. And the people at Amazon, who I have gotten to know this past year and who to a man and woman love the fuck out of some books, are going to keep trying to get the right ones in the hands of readers.”

The acquisition of Goodreads follows Amazon’s purchase of Shelfari, another social reading site, in 2008.

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