How to write a thesis - the latest donation from Stephen Town's nightshelf

Stephen Town goes back to basics with some advice on academic writing.


Eco, U., How to write a thesis, in the University Library at 029.6 ECO

Sunrise at the Rifugio Giacoletti by Fulvio Spada.
Used under a Creative Commons licence.
When I left my first professional library post in 1984, one of my colleagues gave me a present of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, published in English the year before and rapidly achieving sensational success for this Italian academic’s first novel. The book is attractive to librarians; the byzantine nature of the inaccessible library of the monastery described therein probably has a secret fascination for many in our profession. Eco’s appeal apparently still persists, as all our library copies of this novel appear to be on loan as I write.

As a follower of Eco’s work, and embarking on the creation of a thesis myself, I thought this slim manual (now published in English for the first time) would be a valuable addition to our substantial collection of advice on how to write for academic purposes. Starting to write a thesis can feel like a mountainous task, and there is an immediate question of how a book originally written in 1977 might still have any relevance for a modern audience. In a world where many of the tools of research have been transformed,  it is indeed odd to see even a picture of an index card these days. But the core of Eco’s advice on how to build a thesis as ‘an object that will serve others’ remains relevant, helpful and practical even today. I read the book straight off in one evening on the same day as I met my supervisor, and some of the messages about how to write were the same; there is much timeless sense in this work.

Eco writes with style and humour, and librarians are treated to some gentle stereotyping in this book, as he writes: “You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small … A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.”

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