His first remark was, taking up a book: “Human skin”

Selfridges at Christmas, 1944
Imperial War Museum

Arnold Bennett was one of the most successful British novelists of the Victorian era, a prolific wordsmith whose output spanned 34 novels, seven collections of short stories, a dozen plays, and hundreds of articles—and amidst it all, he somehow found time to keep a daily diary that ultimately ran to more than a million words and detailed his busy London life. In this entry, written in March of 1925, he wrote of time spent that day with Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American businessman who, 16 years earlier, had founded the department store that still, to this day, bears his name.

The Diary Entry

Thursday, March 26th

I was walking in Selfridge’s basement yesterday afternoon, idling between two appointments, when I met Selfridge in rather old morning suit and silk hat. He at once seized hold of me and showed me over a lot of the new part of his store. Cold-storage for furs – finest in the world. Basement hall 550 feet long. Sub-basement with a very cheap restaurant where they serve 3,000 to 4,000 customers a day. He introduced me to the head of his baby-linen department: ‘Here is a gentleman wants things for three of his children, one is three months, another ten months, and another a year old.’ Then up his own private lift to the offices and his room, where I had to scratch my name with a diamond on the window – with lots of others. He showed me a lot of accounting. Then downstairs to book department. Fine bindings, etc. His first remark was, taking up a book: “Human skin.” I had to hurry away. He kept insisting that it was wonderfully interesting. And it was.

Further Reading

In 1930, Bennett edited his own journal—detailing just the year 1929—for publication. Then came two volumes after his death, edited by Newman Flower, followed by a “best of” in 1954. All of these can be read online.

As for binding books with human skin (a practice known technically as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’), Wikipedia is your friend. Also worthwhile is a (traditionally bound!) book published in 2020 and titled Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, by medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Completely fascinating.

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