|Read The World's Most Curious Books|
Blackbird's exploration of out-of-copyright work begins with this essay by Walter Hart Blumenthal, which appeared in The Bookman, March 1921. Blumenthal provides a brief and eclectic survey of unusual books and binding, including a discussion of the “bottle-book” in the year after the United States enacted prohibition.
Read the essay with an awareness of its place on the timeline. (For fans of Masterpiece Theatre , this is soon after the events of the second season of Downton Abbey.) 1921 was also the year the BBC was founded; Anatole France received the Nobel Prize for Literature; Edith Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Age of Innocence.
For fans of Harry Potter, a book described by Blumenthal as “bound in Bengal tiger, with a white feline fang protruding from each corner” cannot help but invoke the image of the fanged and vicious Monster Book of Monsters," which must be securely shut with a leather strap.
But the essay is not untouched by troubling ideas, with a passing reference to eugenics, its second paragraph comparing the appraisal of a book with the judgment of a human being based on “face, figure, bearing, gait, and other physical attributes. . .” And following a discussion of animal bindings, examples of books bound in human skin will raise for contemporary readers the specter of human desecration in a second World War that has not yet occurred for this essayist.
Perhaps foremost, in the time of the digital book and digital delivery, Blumenthal's essay refinforces—if in moments of discomfort—our understanding of the book as a material object, whether tomes chained with iron in university libraries, poetry bound in the bequeathed skin of the beloved, or thumbnail volumes valued by royalty or the elite for—rather than content—rarity or design or folly. —M.A. Keller