Sensational Books audio described tour

Explore 9 objects beyond the glass in this digital audio described tour around the Sensational Books exhibition.

Stops in the gallery are marked with a headphones icon ( ). There are transcripts to accompany each stop.

You are welcome to use your device with or without headphones.


This tour was developed in collaboration with our blind and visually impaired community group and is suitable for everyone. It was written and recorded by VocalEyes.

Audio transcripts

Welcome to this audio described tour of ‘Sensational Books’. As you go around you will hear sounds from another section of the exhibition. The sounds include birdsong, choral singing, and whale song.

Here inside the glass casing, around twenty of the miniature rust-coloured volumes that make up King Charles I’s travelling library are attached to a black panel about two metres high. With their covers facing outwards, they’re arranged at irregular angles, like stemless leaves of ivy clambering up a wall. Each leather-bound book is only around 5 centimetres in width, although some books are taller than others. The taller volumes have two pairs of gilt gold frames decorating their covers, one inside the other, whilst the smaller volumes have only a single outer frame.

The rest of the books in the library, around 40 tiny volumes, are arranged in a scattered pile around the base of the black panel, like gifts under a Christmas tree.

Picking one of Charles’ books from the pile and breathing in its musty scent, you’d find it hard to open its thin, gold-lined pages – the books are shallow, and the spines are stiff. A reader would need to peer in through the barely open pages in order to make out the minuscule lettering printed inside.

Curving gilt branches, with evenly spaced leaves, climb up the spine of each individual volume. The arrangement and abundance of the foliage depends on how many pages there are in the book; the most slender volumes have space for only one tendril of a branch, whilst the thicker tomes accommodate plentiful wafts of golden vegetation. The books have been well preserved, but there are signs of their age nonetheless – the gold leaves are faded in places, and there are scuffs and tears in the leather binding of some.

This exhibit is displayed in the three pieces that make up the whole, a box, a lid and the contents.

Encountering the smooth, glossy curves of this circular, wooden box, you might not necessarily guess that it’s made for a book to sit inside, except for the fact of its title, engraved in smart modern lettering in a ring around the walnut-coloured lid; ‘The complete works of William Shakespeare’. The container, a similar size and shape to a tin of Quality Street, has thin lengths of light wood - like sleek, perfectly manicured lollypop sticks – panelling its curved wall. Each panel is dotted at the bottom with a small metal stud.

In the exact centre of the lid is a circular handle, and lifting it, you’d reveal more O’s within the round of the box. Attached to the bottom of the box is a round piece of light wood, which is displayed separately. Starting at the outer edge, the titles of Shakespeare’s works are engraved into it in a ring, each title separated by another small metal stud. There are six rings of titles in total, and there’s a gap between the last ring of Shakespearean titles and the name of the book’s creator, Jenni Grey, in a smaller circle at the centre, along with the year 2012 written in Roman numerals.

Around the titles, the books themselves sit joined together in an unbroken loop. There are forty tiny volumes, containing the unabridged plays, each only 5cm high and 3cm deep, facing outwards, in a structure that mimics an Elizabethan ruff, with the hole at the centre large enough to fit around your head. There’s no beginning or end to the chain, nowhere to indicate where you should start or finish. Each miniature book is joined to its neighbour by two vertical lengths of rounded cord, embroidered with gold thread, on the inside edge of the ruff. The wafer-thin pages of each volume are separated by black leather covers, and the gilding along their edges alternates between a mottled gold and pink, and a solid pinkish hue.

Picking up the ruff, you’d find that it was flexible – the pages of the books move in a way that’s a little like a slinky, fanning out around the edges of a more extreme curve, and pressing tighter together elsewhere in the circle, where the loop becomes more of a straight line.

After flexing the bendable ruff, a reader might try and squint at the tiny lettering printed on the books. They might try to read it like a rosary, with the loop hanging heavy beneath their hand, or place it flat on the table and hunch down with their eyes level to the ring of books, trying to make out a monologue amongst the ruffle of delicate papers.

“I have corrupted myself [x number of times], by dirty & impure words, which I have said [x number of times], in front of persons of the opposite sex.” Translated from French, this is how one of the tabs reads in this small, hand-sized black book of thick pages lined with mottled gold and pink. The book, designed as an aid for repentant sinners, gives its user a chance to bookmark their transgressions for easy access in a confession booth.

The above confession is one of five sins on the left-hand page, each sin cut out of the paper into its own individual tab, connected towards the inner edge of the page. The paper is double thickness, but joined at the outer edge to create a pocket, into which some of the sins, the above included, are tucked.

As a 17th-century Catholic using this book, the sins may have so embarrassed you that you could not bear to utter the statements out loud. Instead, you could communicate with the priest entirely using the book and its tabs, making confession via a paper-based conversation of gestures.

If you had committed the sin written on the tab, you would then untuck it from the paper, to find a thick black line running along the edge, which would bookmark your offence. Untucked sins in this volume include one that confesses ‘I have had a concubine in my house for [x number of] years, whom I did not want to drive away, although my confessor ordered me to.’

There are over 100 pages of sins in this small volume, and there’s a metal clasp on the cover of the book, to keep your transgressions safe from prying eyes. It's hard to say whether this book would deter you from committing the acts listed inside, or if it might in fact suggest behaviours never previously considered.

When open, ‘The Birds of America’ can match the wingspan of a large buzzard or seagull, reaching just under a metre and a half in length. It’s a little over a metre tall, roughly the height of an Emperor penguin, and at 23 kilograms, a similar weight as well. In other words, you’d probably want at least one other person to help you to lift it.

With your assistant on hand, the two of you would then be able to open the brown leather-bound cover. They’d need to stay to help you leaf carefully through the thick, gold-edged pages – if you tried to turn them yourself, the paper would most likely tear, unable to support its own weight.

Every slow turn of a gargantuan page would unveil another full page hand-coloured image bursting with avian life. The birds, as well as the minutely detailed flora and fauna that surround them, are in most cases life-sized, or as close as they can be. The glossy feathers of larger birds ruffle impressively, taking up most of a page, whilst smaller species perch as a flock on mossy branches, or build delicate twiggy nests against a white background.

At present, the book is turned 90 degrees and sits in portrait, open on The Great White Heron, a page towards the end of the volume. An enormous bird of pure white feathers, it’s been drawn in the moment between scooping a fish up from the water and guzzling it into its long, snaking neck. The scaly legs of the heron, yellow at the tops but giving way to black feet and claws, are bent, and its body is horizontal, as though it’s stepped forward and tipped down to reach into the water. But its head and neck point skywards, creating a u-bend kink in its sinuous gullet. It’s only because of this crouching posture that the whole of the bird can fit on the page.

The heron’s long yellow beak, thin and sharp as a pair of scissors, is closing around the wide-eyed fish, which is only slightly smaller than the bird’s head. The fish is a reddish pink, with yellow stripes around its eyes, which fade to orange further down its body. The heron’s yellow eye, ringed by purple skin, looks out at us with a hard stare, its looming pupil gleaming.

The bird stands on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by a large body of dark water undulating with little waves. But most of the background is taken up by sky – threatening thunderclouds crowd out a more cheerful blue that peeks out at the top of the picture. In the lower section of the image, the sky gives way to the land, and just at that juncture, its clouds become a sunset pink. On the horizon, white birds soar over green puffs of tree-covered islands that rise from the water, and a little town of blocky buildings lines the water-front.

In contrast, nine tiny books are arranged over the opposite page, sitting on brass bars. The volumes are minuscule in comparison to this huge tome, the smallest book, in a metal case, only a little larger than the heron’s eye.

If you’ve ever collected a prescription for a medication, the stiff, crinkly paper and folded top of this unassuming white bag will be all too familiar. Stuck to the bag is a label - a green pharmacy cross, above lettering in utilitarian, type-writer font. Pharmacopoetics, the prescription label reads, and in parenthesis beneath it, ‘Pill poems to be swallowed with a glass of water.’ Then, the name of the artist, Stephen Emmerson, and a 13-digit ISBN reference number.

Inside the long, thin bag live two glass medicine bottles. One is squat, roughly thumb sized, with yellow-brown glass and a white screw-top lid, the same width as its body. Rattling around inside are two large pills. The casings are made of two halves, one side overlapping the other. Both pills are see-through, and inside each is a rolled-up slip of paper, with words printed onto it. One reads, ‘1000 poems’, and the other, ‘Induces Visions’.

The other bottle is thinner and a few centimetres taller than the first, with clear glass and a black screw-top lid. It has an alarming red sticker on it, with the all-caps warning, ‘DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES WHEN TAKING THIS MEDICATION’, printed beside an icon of a martini glass with a cross through it. Another sticker sits above this warning, this label smaller and white, with its lettering less emphatically capitalised: it reads ‘This Capsule Contains a Demon’.

A single pill knocks around inside this bottle. It’s impossible to know if the label is telling the truth about its contents, because the capsule is opaque, with one half milky white and the other a vivid shade of red.

Unscrewing the lids of the two bottles, you could shake the contents into your palm, mixing the red and white pill with the clear ones. As the capsules are quite large, it might be difficult to swallow them all in one go, even with the glass of water mandated in the prescription. Easiest to swallow 1000 poems, Induces Visions, and the demon, one after the other, absorbing each poem in turn.

If it weren’t displayed here, lit from above and revolving impressively on a circular black plate, you might be drawn to this book-object by nose alone, alerted by the pungent smell of plastic cheese.

The book is displayed inside its own personal black mini-fridge, attached to the wall at shoulder height and viewed at eye level.

This unusual specimen certainly looks like a book – a fat square volume, its cover bound in a yellowy-orange fabric, with the title ‘20 Slices’ stamped onto the front in a blue sans-serif font, and ‘American Cheese’ emblazoned on its wide spine.

But if you were to leaf through it, instead of the usual pages of text, you’d find twenty orangey slices of real, if squeaky and processed, cheese. Each slice lies encased in a thin plastic wrapper. The twenty slices are expertly bound together to mimic pages, which, when open, fan out like stiff paper, splaying around the curve of the spine.

This Missal contains the texts a priest would need in order to perform the Mass. It’s a large, battered book, and peeking out of its pages are little round knotted nodules, hard, like centimetre-wide pine-cones. These bookmarks are spaced throughout, similar to a modern day book stuffed with post-it notes. There are traces of the original gold colour of the thread still glinting on the hard knots, but mostly they’re black, the gold metal rubbed away by priestly fingers using them to turn the pages whilst performing the Mass.

It’s not just the gold colour on the knots that has been worn away by use over the years. The front and back covers were once bound with a plush black velvet, but the fibres have been rubbed bald, leaving only threadbare fabric, ragged, holey in places, showing through to the wooden boards of the covers. The fabric on the spine has been rubbed away, exposing five pairs of off-white cords horizontal across the spine, that bind the wooden boards together.

On the section that’s open in front of you now, one of the little knots is stuck to the page with a small tab. This double page spread is made from soft, slick-to the touch silk – although not all the leaves in this book are the same material, with some crafted from more traditional paper, and some parchment. Scripture in Latin is written on the right-hand page, on pasted-in parchment which is whiter than the silk behind it. A golden square, containing an image of a crown surrounded by two cherubs, intends the top left of the text. All this is bordered by black and white engravings of biblical scenes, which are printed directly onto the silk.

The left-hand page is largely taken up with another black and white engraving. Jesus is high up on the cross, with a pair of winged angels hovering on either side of him, collecting the blood that pours out of his hands, nailed to the cross. On the ground beneath him are three women – one on the left, with her head covered, looking down with hands together in prayer. Another, blonde hair curling loose around her shoulders, kneels, and looks up at Christ with her bare arms around the base of the cross. A third stands to the right, also looking up, with her hands crossed over her chest. Jerusalem rises up on the hill behind the crucifix.

Beneath this engraving is a piece of parchment, stuck onto the silken page. Its background is pure gold, and it’s outlined in red. On it is another picture of Jesus, this time just his head, in front of a knotted sheet. It’s more simply drawn than the engraving, and brightly coloured. Christ has a pained expression, with beads of crimson blood dripping from the golden crown of thorns on his forehead. This little piece of parchment is known as an osculatory target – if you were a priest, you could kiss it, showing your devotion whilst preserving the book from harm. By aiming for this target, you could avoid dampening the book with an over-zealous kiss, or an errant fleck of spittle.

As a choir psalter, this serving-platter sized book, bound in tattered dark brown leather, is big enough that you could gather a group around it to sing from the large Latin script and musical notation written inside. In order to open the book, you’d need to undo a belt-like buckle, which fastens it shut. Examining its closed pages, you might understand the necessity of binding the book closed – instead of lying flat, the pages ripple and warp against each other, in a pattern not dissimilar to the knots and swirls of wood grain.

Although the damage is what you might expect if you brought the book into a humid sauna, the choristers weren’t reading it during a sweat session. Instead, the damp absorbed by this book is a function of its use – the moisture is that exhaled by the singing of choristers, which has seeped into its pages, causing the distortion.

Flipping through the stiff parchment to the double spread displayed in front of you now, you’d find more evidence of the heavy use that this book was subjected to 600 or so years ago.

Both pages are yellowed, and on the bottom of the left-hand page, a patch of dark discolouration seeps up the warped parchment. The lower right-hand corner of the right page has been cut or creased away at the exact point where a musician might quickly turn the page whilst singing. The corner has been repaired with a lighter coloured parchment, a material that is repeated in the same place on almost every single leaf throughout the book.

The left-hand page contains a medieval calendar, used for calculating days of religious celebrations. In amongst red lettering at the top of the page, the faded word ‘December’ can be made out. On the page below, Roman numerals sit beside feast days, all written in Latin.

On the right-hand page is a musical notation. Towards the inner corner of this page, beneath a paragraph of red lettering, an ornately decorated P spans from top to bottom. It’s adorned with golds, blues and reds, with a religious figure drawn inside its loop. Richly pigmented in places, in others the colours are scratched away to the same yellow as the rest of the parchment. Beside the ‘P’, the musical notation consists of black squares of varying lengths, written on five red stave lines.

Some of the images that border the musical notation are incomplete – sliced in half around the edges of the page. This suggests that the book was once even larger, but was shaved down to tidy up the edges when it was rebound.

At present, this collection of eleven 17th to 18th century books on theology is presented on a glass shelf, hung from above on thin metal poles. But normally, they live in the Duke Humfrey's Library – the oldest reading room in the Bodleian. If you were studying at Oxford University at the time, settling into the Reading Room to consult the aged texts, you might notice a distinctive perfume coming from the volumes nested inside the heavy dark oak shelves around you.

It’s not just the typical ‘old book’ smell that hangs in the air wherever volumes of this age are gathered – the scent of timeworn leather and slowly decaying rags. Something very particular to the Duke Humfrey’s shelves, made from timber cut from the Merton College woods, has infused these tomes with a warmer and sweeter aroma, a scent that the display case describes as ‘reminiscent of meadow hay joined with pipe tobacco and cedarwood’. If you handled old books frequently, your nose would become attuned to the different scents, and you’d be able to sniff a Duke Humfrey's volume out of a line-up.

The eleven tattered books presented here are all roughly A4 size, although some are a few centimetres shorter than others. Each book is constructed of wooden boards, covered in either leather or parchment, and has raised bands running across the spine. Also on the spine are faded shelfmarks, hand painted numbers between 15 and 25. The numbers are mostly in order, although books 21 to 23, the tallest volumes of the collection, come after 24 and 25.

The shelfmarks are more visible on some of the books than others. Five of the volumes are made from dark brown leather, soft to the touch, with faded gold tooling on the spine which makes the shelfmarks difficult to distinguish. Four are bound with light beige coloured calf-skin parchment, hard and smooth like coated paper, stretched very tight over the wooden boards.

Finally, two volumes are bound in pig-skin. A slightly paler shade of beige than the calf-skin parchment, the binding, although still hard and unyielding to touch, has a much rougher texture. Up close, it’s possible to make out dimples in the material – follicles that once held the coarse bristles of pig-hair.

Moving around to the other side of the floating glass shelf, the edges of the closed pages of the books are mostly shades of faded, pinkish red. However, the two volumes bound with pig-skin parchment have pages edged with a blue stain, dark against the pale binding. In both of these books, the pages are held closed by a pair of metal clasps.