Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – Book Review: How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco


Now in its twenty-third edition in Italy and translated into seventeen languages, How to Write a Thesis has become a classic. This is its first, long overdue publication in English. Vanessa Longden thinks that in addition to its witty one-liners, Eco’s book contains the bare bones on which to build research. 

This review originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

How to Write a Thesis. Umberto Eco. MIT Press. March 2015.

Find this book: amazon-logo

The passing of time and technological developments have altered the
way researchers engage and interact with their source material. In light
of this, Eco’s How to Write a Thesis becomes increasingly
significant and even more when one considers the publication has not
been edited or revised since its release in 1977. This is unusual,
particularly in a contemporary context where access to knowledge is near
instantaneous and information is transient. This is not to say Eco’s
book is rooted firmly in the past, but that it has stood the test of
time. The publication has provided inspiration and instruction for
several generations of Italian students and will continue to do so on a
broader scale since its long awaited translation into English.

This book will not tell you what to write and Eco is more than frank
about this: if you are after a ‘quick fix’ then you should not undertake
a PhD, as you would be pursuing it for the wrong motivations. What Eco
provides, in addition to witty one-liners – “You are not Proust. Do not
write long sentences”; and “You are not e.e. cummings…you are not an
avant garde poet” – are the bare bones on which to build research. Eco
highlights different avenues of investigation and presents the demands
and commitments – ranging from financial motivations to more personal
attributes like the candidate’s age and maturity – which may affect
students and their research as they embark on their academic careers.

Undertaking independent research should be an adventure: “If you
write your thesis with gusto, you will be inspired to continue,” says
Eco. Your thesis will not be an easy journey, nor should it be. The
publication acts as a methodical guide which clarifies ‘The Definition
and Purpose of a Thesis’; choosing a respective topic (be it a Monograph
or Survey, Historical or Theoretical, Ancient or Contemporary); and
through to conducting research and writing the final piece. Your thesis
should ultimately “activate your intellectual metabolism” and leave you
hungry for more.

Eco does not disappoint, he wrote this book for a hypothetical
student without any experience and this is important to remember. It is
all too easy to be swept along by Eco’s dynamic thought process. For
instance, he demonstrates in An Experiment in the Library of Alessandria
that students are still able to construct a preliminary bibliography
using limited library resources and within a narrow timeframe (nine
hours to be exact). Here, reading the rapidity of Eco’s thinking can at
times be a little intimidating and students must remember that research
should be taken in its stride. Reading another’s thoughts in linear
progression is different to actual contemplation which can often be
erratic and unexpected; but no less valuable. To put it a different way,
early researchers must not be discouraged if their revelations do not
appear as prompt as Eco’s. Their approach to inquiry will develop over
time with critical reflection and would be partially dependent “on the
researcher’s psychological structure”.

Despite developments in technology, digital word processing, and
online archival and cataloguing systems, Chapter 4 appears somewhat
novel in that it features reproductions of Eco’s index cards supported
by his handwritten annotations, colour coding and cross-references. What
he presents is a comprehensive and systematic mode of organisation, the
index cards are compiled into numerous categories: bibliographic
information, summary of books or articles, ideas files, and quotations
to which you wish to return. This method remains beneficial as it
enables students to reacquaint themselves with the tactility of their
source material. Instead of becoming distanced digitally through
computer screens, students’ physical interaction with their source-base
plays an intrinsic relationship in the formulation of new ideas.

The best ideas may not come from major authors
This is just one of Eco’s poignant and important acknowledgements,
that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places and may
even arise from those whose ideologies and thoughts are very different
from our own. Eco says, “Even the sternest opponent can suggest some
ideas to us. It may depend on the weather, the season, and the hour of
the day”. Such inspiration and interpretations are largely subjective;
recognising this and learning to listen to others is a valuable skill to
possess and should be developed as one embarks on their research.
Similarly, Eco writes about ‘Academic Pride’ at the end of Chapter 5.
This section concerns confidence in writing and feeling accomplished in
one’s efforts and diligence.

When you speak, you are the expert…you are
humanity’s functionary who speaks in the collective voice. Be humble and
prudent before opening your mouth, but once you open it, be dignified
and proud.
For Eco, intellectual satisfaction and stimulation, in addition to
genuine interest, should be the motivators of academic research. This
book is accessible enough to benefit students at various stages of their
academic careers, whether at undergraduate, masters or doctoral level.
It will also serve as a valuable teaching resource as Eco makes readers
aware of the skills that are required in order to perform thorough and
quality research. In most cases, How to Write a Thesis serves
as a reminder and a token of reassurance; proposing that many readers
will already possess the techniques which Eco describes. Thus this book
bestows more than guidance, it makes the reader aware of their own

Research is and remains, in Eco’s words, “a mysterious adventure that
inspires us passion and holds many surprises”. I could not agree more.
Research can be elusive and it can bestow extraordinary clarity. People
are united and divided by research. Writing is just as much a “social
act” as an individual endeavour. We continue to collaborate with the
texts of the past, shaping and elaborating others’ perspectives in order
to expand the borders of a collective culture. Ideas coordinate, they
“travel freely, migrate, disappear and reappear”. If for a time
researchers are “lost in the woods” they can take solace in the fact
that their surroundings will no longer appear as daunting.


Vanessa Longden is in the second year of her PhD
programme reading History at the University of Lancaster. She is
primarily interested in examining the photograph as a space in which
identity, memory, and forgetting is (re)constructed. In 2014, Longden
presented: ‘Meetings in Virtual Spaces: Re-examining Francesca Woodman’s
Self-Portraits’ at the 6th Strangers, Aliens and Foreigners,
Global Conference at Prague, Czech Republic which is currently in press
with Inter-Disciplinary Press. She has also recently published a paper
with Retrospectives Journal, entitled: ‘Sentiment up in Smoke: Tracing Images of Illusion, Absence and Identity’. She tweets at @VanessaLongden​.

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Impact of Social Sciences – Book Review: How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco

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