Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: critics, classics, special collections, and more.

The editors

January 16, 2023

But is it a book?: If you think the answer to the question “What is a book?” is simple, a new exhibition at the Regenstein Library might challenge your assumption. “But Is It a Book?” is a chooseable path display that questions the essential nature of bookishness, asking the observer to judge whether a book must have text, bindings, pages, and more. Each question guiding the exhibition is accompanied by examples from Special Collections, including everything from clay tablets from the third century BC to modern ebooks. After exploring, attendees may choose to submit a response to the prompt, answering in 100 words or less what they believe a book to be. The exhibition will be up until April 28, 2023.

Critical status: The Point, a literary magazine founded by three University of Chicago graduate students in 2008, will welcome literary critic Becca Rothfeld to Cobb Hall on Tuesday, January 17, for a students-only question-and-answer session on “Becoming a Critic.” Currently a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard, Rothfeld’s writing has appeared in the premier American literary publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Bookforum. Her recent essay in The New Yorker reimagines Franz Kafka’s legacy of seclusion in light of a new translation of the author’s diaries released this week.

The Chinese classics: What can interpretation tell us about the interpreter? In her new book Plato Goes to China, University of Chicago classics professor Shadi Bartsch turns the question on an entire country. Bartsch explores the history of classical studies in China, especially as Chinese scholars have endeavored to understand Western culture while looking to push their country toward twenty-first-century greatness. Some Chinese scholarly perspectives on the classics won’t be new to Western audiences: Thucydides’ criticism of democracy in Athens is extended to democracy in America, and Plato’s “noble lie” is lauded. Others might, such as Aristotle’s “civic brainwashing” in the Politics. Bartsch’s analysis, published by Princeton University Press, shows the good and the bad of political theory in practice.