Sensational Books 2022


Sensational Books an exhibition at the Weston Library.

After suffering two years of delays due to Covid restrictions, Sensational Books opened to the public in May 2022. Designed not only to celebrate the sensory appeal of reading physical books but also to explore the accessibility of reading today to those who are sensory impaired, the exhibition features books and items from the Bodleian’s collections that invite a sensory response across the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and beyond.

As e-books continue to grow in use, this exhibition celebrates the material book and the ways in which readers have enjoyed them. Alongside the five senses, this exhibition asks visitors to experience proprioception, the name given at the start of the twentieth century to the sense of self-movement and body-perception.

The exhibition features an extraordinary selection of mediaeval, pre-modern, modern, and contemporary books, drawn from a range of cultures and in a variety of formats. The exhibition also features, for the first time at the Bodleian Libraries, an audio guide that has been made in partnership with people who are visually impaired.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Dizzy Pragnell’s books, made of vegetables, encourage the viewer to look with fresh eyes at the familiar.

  • A 14th century Psalter that has been heavily used for devotions (MS Canon Liturg. 126). The featured page shows an illuminated initial with heaven at the top and the earth below, and the marks on the paint reveal how a reader used the page like a modern touch screen, swiping the soul heavenwards.

  • A miniature travelling set of 60 books that were bound in red leather for the 8-year-old Prince Charles early in the 17th century and known as Prince Charles’ ‘travelling library’. Each book is the size of a matchbox (Emmerson 1-53)

  • Index, a book designed by Andy Warhol in the 1960s as a “children’s book for hipsters”. When first published in 1967, the book came complete with a pop-up castle, a 45rpm flexi-disc stamped with a portrait of Lou Reed (which plays a previously unrecorded song by Nico and the Velvet Underground), and a sheet of LSD stamps!

  • 20 Slices of American Cheese by Ben Denzer (2018), a book made from shelf-stable, plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese.

“From 'living books' and historic scents to conductive ink and tactile pages!”

Sensational Books is a project with the Bodleian Libraries that is curated and led by Prof Emma Smith Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford. and Prof Kathryn Rudy Professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews. Using the Bodleian's collections, the project explores encounters with books beyond just the notion of reading them, encouraging responses to them across the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and beyond. Sensational Books explored Bodleian’s experiences of the book beyond reading.

Sensational Books explore how early books and manuscripts engaged with the senses, in ways similar to more recent works by book artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

“Displays included dynamic and interactive elements from sound artists, tactile items and even a smell wall.”

We worked with nine artists to explore the books as an object engaging the senses:

  • Louise Beer and John Hooper

  • Sam Skinner

  • Sian Hutchings and Calum Perrin

  • Helen Frosi

  • Gill Partington

  • Andrew Albin & Amy Sterly

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