But Is It a Book?

Exhibition Dates: January 3 - April 28, 2023
Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637

Cinderella (proscenium book)
This late 19th-century toy book, "Cinderella," is cut in the shape of a proscenium, the part of the theater stage that is in front of the curtain. The pages are hinged on opposite sides and opening them mimics the curtain going up on each scene of Cinderella’s story. Cinderella (proscenium book). New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1891. The University of Chicago Library.

One of life's most familiar objects, the codex book is also one of the most innovative and adaptable technologies for making and sharing meaning devised by humankind. But what makes a book a book? Must it have a binding, pages, text, and a rectangular shape to qualify? Is a clay tablet, a parchment scroll, or an artist's book really a book? How do we decide?

But Is it a Book? is a choosable-path exhibition that investigates the nature of the material text, considering in turn the attributes that signal "bookness"—format, shape, binding, pages, and text. Using examples from the long arc of book history and book technology, from a clay tablet made in the 3rd century B.C.E. to audio- and e-books manifesting themselves materially the instant one presses "play," this show attempts to get at the heart of what makes a book a book.

A looseleaf portfolio of planned works in concrete and a concrete book.
The Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell said he encased a copy of "Betonierungen," a looseleaf portfolio of his planned works in concrete, inside each of the 100 copies of "Betonbuch" (both pictured here). But how do we confirm the presence of this publication? A collaboration among curators, conservators, and materials scientists at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute investigated this challenge by turning to the scientific community to conduct instrumental analysis of Vostell’s work to offer an alternative approach to reading the material object. The results were inconclusive, but work continues to try to understand how the Betonierungen and its idea might be enhanced, contradicted, or transformed by the Betonbuch that contains it. Wolf Vostell, Betonbuch (Concrete book), Hinwil, Switzerland: Edition Howeg, 1971. The University of Chicago Library.


Elizabeth Frengel, Curator of Rare Books, The University of Chicago Library

Use of Images and Media Contact

Images from the exhibition included on this page are available for download to members of the media and are reserved for editorial use in connection with University of Chicago Library exhibitions, programs, or related news. For more information, contact Rachel Rosenberg at ra-rosenberg@uchicago.edu or 773-834-1519.

A black and white image of a laser-cut accordion book of a fantastical kingdom
"Nylmah" uses book architecture to tell the tale of a mythical kingdom brought to ruin when a stranger bearing a gift is turned away at the gates. The concertina binding structure allows the walls of the castle to function as the pages of this book; but when the covers are folded beneath it, they become a pedestal for a book sculpture. Joanna Robson, Nylmah. Edinburgh, 2014. Image courtesy of Joanna Robson.