Sensational Books, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, explores the experience of the book beyond reading.
After suffering two years of delays due to Covid restrictions, Sensational Books will open 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 medieval, pre-modern, modern, and contemporary books, drawn from a range of cultures and in a variety of formats. The exhibition will also feature, for the first time at the Bodleian Libraries, an audio guide that has been made in partnership with people who are visually impaired. This has been led by a group of local people who will give you an insight into how books can be experienced when a sense is changed.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
- Dizzy Pragnell’s books, made of vegetables, which 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.
Sensational Books is co-curated by Kathryn Rudy, Professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews and Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford.
Of the exhibition, Emma Smith said:
This exhibition will give visitors a chance to rethink how we interact with books. The joy of reading them is only one small part of how we experience them. It will touch on our ever-changing relationship with printed works, including how modern technology is shifting our connection to them.
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, said:
We are thrilled to finally be able to realise this exceptional exhibition. The Bodleian has always been a celebration of the book, but now we are inviting everyone to celebrate the act of reading as a multi-sensory experience. Sensational Books has been expertly curated to bring the public back to the joys of the physical book, and in the challenging times we live in, it reminds us that books are and have always been for everyone.
The Bodleian Libraries gratefully acknowledges the support received from donors who have made the Sensational Books exhibition possible.