‘Sensational Books’ at the Bodleian

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By Annabel

On Tuesday I was privileged to be invited to join a press event for the Bodleian Libraries’ new (much-delayed by Covid) exhibition in Oxford which celebrates ‘Sensational Books‘. We’re talking the five senses here: Sight, Touch, Taste, Smell and Hearing – not any sensational salacious or subversive content (although some of the items on display do feature the latter in particular!).

The curators, Professors Emma Smith and Kathryn Rudy were on hand to take us around, answer myriad questions and to talk about the joy of reading and handling books generally. Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, and worked on authenticating a copy of the First Folio discovered in 2016. Rudy is a medievalist and Professor of Art History at St Andrews, with a particular interest in ‘kiss marks’ on old manuscripts.

The items on display go from ancient codices to modern pop-up books grouped into the five senses, including some striking bookish works of art. Hands-on examples of flick books to riffle through – seeing and hearing, and aromas analysed from some of the books (including one of Tolkien’s – an inveterate pipe-smoker) were there to be smelled, helping to emphasise the multi-sensory nature of reading a physical book, not to mention our emotional attachment to them.

The size of the books featured go from small to large. King Charles I’s travelling library of sixty tiny red leather bound classics are about three inches high, and similarly sized are the tiny Shakespeares made into a ruff by bookbinder Jenni Grey in 2012. These books contrast with the heft of the world’s most valuable book – the Audubon Birds of America.

Curators, Professors Kathryn Rudy and Emma Smith. ©Annabel Gaskell

Proprioception is a word that describes our sense of self-movement and body-perception. A word central to this exhibition which celebrates the physical act of turning pages, unrolling scrolls, slipping books into your pocket. In the background to the photo above, you can just see pop-up books, a never-ending Möbius strip book, a wearable scroll full of spell cures, and a chair with a very large thick old book on it, showing the bum imprints of the short man who habitually sat on it!

Some of the highlights for me included:

  • a book by Andy Warhol which he described as a ‘children’s book for hipsters’. The spread on show has a page of LSD impregnated stamps, which can be torn out – a good thing to be under glass!
  • a children’s gardening book from 1855 bound in green arsenic-dyed cloth! Touching with sweaty hands could be highly toxic.
  • a bomb-maker’s manual embedded into a paperback reprint of a Raymond Chandler short story ‘Smart-Aleck Kill’ issued to the armed wing of the African Nation Congress in the early 1970s. No-one need know what you’re reading on the bus…
  • smeared and rubbed medieval manuscripts in which the readers have interacted with the pages, inadvertently moving an inked soul in the illustration heavenward towards the top of the page, leaving fingermarks in the margins, wiping the Virgin Mary’s face off a page as the reader moved their finger along under the words and more.

I asked Professor Rudy if there was a basis for the poisoned manuscript in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose? Of course there was – the Duke of Bavaria poisoned the pages of his wife’s prayerbook in 1390!

However, my favourite book of the whole exhibition was the simply gorgeous embroidered Geneva Bible presented to Elizabeth I on New Year’s Day 1584 by printer Christopher Barker. Deep red velvet, seed pearls, gold thread, gilded edges and winding vines.

If you’re passing through Oxford, the small but perfectly formed ‘Sensational Books’ exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library (just past the main Blackwell’s shop) is well worth stopping off at for an hour or so. It’s free too. There’s also a great shop full of bookish delights and a cafe on site.

Everyone would find their own favourites in this exhibition, I hope you enjoyed mine. A huge thank you to the Bodleian PR team for inviting me to this event.

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Annabel is Co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

(All photos above are ©Annabel Gaskell)

Sensational Books at the Bodleian – until December 4th, 2022.


  1. Sounds marvellous – I had an invite but couldn’t get over which is such a shame!!

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