In the early 1980s, Umberto Eco enjoyed a remarkable streak of beginner’s luck with his first novel, The Name of the Rose. An improbable international best seller, it was a pastiche of detective fiction filled with nods and winks at Eco’s own field of semiotics as well as his longstanding interest in medieval theology. Most of the intertextuality was removed when the novel was adapted for the screen in 1986, presumably to make room for Sean Connery.
But at the peak of Rose mania, many a paper was written trying to sound out Eco’s historical and theoretical echoes. (The pun was inevitable, even providential.) An essay appearing in Diacritics, the preeminent journal of literary theory at the time, even made a connection between the novel and one of Eco’s lesser-known efforts: “a handbook on dissertation-writing for the vast despised vulgus of Italian students,” namely Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977). It was one of the very rare mentions in an English-language journal of another international best seller by Eco: the work now available as How to Write a Thesis, published by M.I.T. Press.
Roger Conover, the press’s executive editor, tells me that the handbook has been staple reading for a couple of generations of students in Europe and beyond. It was translated into 17 languages, including Russian and Chinese, before reaching English. Its closest Anglophone equivalent is probably Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff’s The Modern Researcher, originally published in 1957. But while Barzun and Graff made substantial revisions to their book across its six editions, Eco’s has remained in print essentially unchanged for almost four decades, apart from the introduction he added to the 1985 edition.
By then, Eco’s manual was being used in several countries and, he noted, by middle-school students as well as doctoral candidates. These developments did not surprise the author: “The methods necessary to conduct high-quality research, at any level of complexity, are the same all over the world.”
So why didn’t How to Write a Thesis come out in English in the aftermath of The Name of the Rose, when everything from Eco’s own thesis to his newspaper columns were being translated? I don’t know for certain, but the arrival (not to say invasion) of the personal computer on college campuses may have been a factor.
“A thesis is a typewritten manuscript,” we read at the opening of chapter one, “usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particular problem in his chosen field.” Barzun and Graff expressed skepticism about word processing in the fourth edition (1985) of The Modern Researcher, while Eco’s stubbornly un-updated handbook avoids the matter entirely. He devotes a solid 100 pages to the art and science of preparing index cards in the course of research, which is no longer the selling point it once must have seemed.
Even so, How to Write a Thesis remains valuable after all this time largely thanks to the spirit of Eco’s advice. It is witty but sober, genial but demanding -- and remarkably uncynical about the rewards of the thesis, both for the person writing it and for the enterprise of scholarship itself. Eco’s original target audience consisted of the influx into Italian universities of students “who, for example, work in the city clerk’s office in their hometown of only 10,000 inhabitants, a town where there are perhaps only newsstands that substitute for proper booksellers,” or who never learned “how to sign up for a library card, how to search for a book, or in which libraries to look.”
But remedial instruction in basic skills forms only a small part of the guidance Eco offers. Far more of the book concerns the higher cognitive operations involved in selecting and refining a topic for research -- one suitable given the time and the resources available to a student, but also challenging enough to demand sustained, intensive mental labor -- and then producing a text that is readable, cogent and even a contribution to knowledge.
Eco’s pages on the seemingly obsolete practice of taking notes on index cards prove to have more lasting value than the 21st-century reader might expect. The cards themselves are more than just a storage and retrieval mechanism for citations and quotations; the work of preparing and cross-referencing them is inseparable from that of finding and analyzing sources, primary and secondary. Notebooks are equally suited to such purposes. And I suppose many of the techniques could be adapted to screen-based devices. “At the very least,” Eco writes, “always work on homogeneous material that is easy to move and handle. This way, you will know at a glance what you have read and what remains to be read.”
Some of Eco’s advice is, if anything, even more valuable now, given the ubiquity and seeming omniscience of our digital tools. One paragraph in particular comes to mind:
“You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. 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. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.”
Still true! The Association of College and Research Libraries ought to use this quotation in a poster. It also displays the wry tone that frequently makes How to Write a Thesis a lot more entertaining than its title might suggest.
Eco explicitly warns that his book is not meant for people seeking “to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly.” But he does offer them a couple of possibly helpful suggestions: “(a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution.”
He also explains that a successful plagiarist must exercise due diligence:
“It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence.... Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.”
Eco’s humor never detracts from his serious intent. And anyway, even the sardonic pointers on cheating are instructive in their way. As William of Baskerville puts it in The Name of the Rose, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” Even when the tools on hand make it awfully easy to try.