Bottled book smells and volumes made of veg and cheese at sensational show

BOOKS made of cheese; volumes crafted from plants and vegetables; manuscripts written in blood – and the sweet smell of books old and new – all feature in a remarkable show that is, quite literally, sensational.

These are books that you can not just read but also rub, stroke, chew, wear and sniff. Oxford University’s renowned Bodleian Libraries is currently staging an exhibition based on the six senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and proprioception.

The latter, should you have to ask – and, yes, I did! – is the sense of self-movement and body-perception. ‘Sensational Books’ does what it says on the tin, to paraphrase the iconic Ronseal ad, exploring our experiences of the book beyond reading.

20 Slices of American Cheese (2018) © Ben Denzer.

So, if you want a tasty read, there’s Ben Denzer’s 20 Slices of American Cheese, a book made from plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese. Or how about Dizzy Pragnell’s beautiful books, one of which is the lead image in this post, made of vegetables?

Exhibits range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from a scratch and sniff Bacon Cookbook to Andy Warhol’s Index, which came complete with a pop-up castle, a 45rpm Velvet Underground flexi-disc and a sheet of LSD stamps!

Scratch and Sniff Bacon Cookbook © Smith Street Books.

Among many highlights is a set of 60 books that were bound in red leather for the eight-year-old Prince Charles early in the 17th century and known as Prince Charles’ ‘travelling library’. Your eyes will deceive you in the picture below – because each book is actually only the size of a matchbox.

Travelling library of Charles I © Bodleian Libraries

And if you thought that swiping an iPad screen while reading was something new, think again. On a 14th century Psalter heavily used for devotions, marks on the paint reveal how a reader used the page like a modern touch screen, swiping the soul heavenwards.

Psalter, Church of St Lawrence in Trau. © Bodleian Libraries

But, best of all if you, like me, love the aroma of a freshly opened book or a leather-bound volume off a dusty shelf, researchers have been able to extract for the first time the smell from books in the collection of the Bodleian – and bottle it.

From the distinctive aroma of old vellum to pages tainted by tobacco from the pipe smoke of C.S. Lewis, there’s plenty of evocative scents to spark the senses.

Extracting the aroma of a book @Bodleian Libraries

The exhibition, which runs at the ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library until December 4, offers free admission, and uses dynamic and interactive elements from sound artists, tactile displays and even a smell wall, to celebrate the book in all its forms.

There’s also, for the first time at the Bodleian Libraries, an audio guide that has been made in partnership with people who are visually impaired, offering an insight into how books can be experienced when a sense is changed.

Magical Roll, parchment written in blood ©Bodleian Libraries

Sensational Books is 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.

“This exhibition gives visitors a chance to rethink how we interact with books,” says Emma. “The joy of reading them is only one small part of how we experience them.”

Dizzy Pragnell, Farmer’s Market (2019) © Dizzy Pragnell

Guided tours are available on selected dates and can be booked via the event webpage, but you do not need to book a tour simply to visit the exhibition. 

To book call 01865 277225 or email

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