10 Books Which Made My Dissertation

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Usually, at the end of every year, I would do a roundup of all the books I read that year. I didn’t write one at the end of 2020 because I was too busy working on my dissertation. However, most of the books I did read in 2020 were for my dissertation. The topic of my dissertation ended up being related to the content on my blog. So today I thought it might be interesting to share some of the books I read during the research process. 

I won’t go into massive detail, but my dissertation looked at how new digital technologies have changed how we as a society write. As such I tried to assess the need for handwriting education in schools. For this, I looked at several examples where one could theoretically choose between physical and digital forms of writing. One of these examples was bullet journaling and how the physical nature of the bullet journal part of what makes it work. 

I realise this may not be a topic which some of you are interested in. But I looked into the history of things such as notebooks, commonplace books and planners so there is a chance you may find something of interest. 

Writing, Illuminating & Lettering

Writing, Illuminating & Lettering is really where my whole research process started. I do not know how to write a dissertation. Now that I’ve written a dissertation I can safely say I’m still not entirely sure how to write a dissertation. The research process started with a vague idea that I was going to write something about calligraphy and this is really where modern calligraphy started. Some people on the internet will insist that modern calligraphy became a thing in the last 10 years. But in reality, it began with the Arts & Craft movement at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Writing, Illuminating & Lettering is more of a how-to book rather than an academic text. You probably know Edward Johnston better as that guy who made the London Underground typeface. But he was also a calligrapher and created a style of calligraphy based on 11th century illuminated manuscripts. I ended up not using this as a reference in my dissertation but it’s still a really good book with lots of information on laying out a design and how to create letterforms. I ended up using it quite a bit over my final year. 

Letters of Note

I am almost certain I owned a copy of Letters of Note at some point however I no longer have it. This just proves that my fascination with handwriting existed long before I decided to write a dissertation on the topic. Letters of Note is a collection of over 100 “of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the seismically popular website of the same name”.

The mere existence of this book shows just how much our attitudes towards handwritten letters have changed. Last year I read a Victorian letter writing guide and one thing it mentioned is that typically letters would be burned after reading. This was done for privacy reasons. So others could not read those letters (and publish them Alexander Hamilton style I assume). But it’s interesting to see how technology has so quickly changed our attitude towards handwritten letters. Something once so common has become a treasured item.

The Missing Ink

The Missing Ink has actually inspired a rant which I will hopefully in the future post on my portfolio. It’s about the (apparent) decline in handwriting which has happened over the last 200 years. However, the issue with this book is that it has been editorialised. By that I mean the author has a lot of opinions when it comes to handwriting and not all of them are positive. 

If you would like an example of this, the author complains about the fact that students type essays because they ‘have bad handwriting’. The author also chooses to complain about people who take pride in their penmanship, stating (and this is a direct quote) “What came first – being an arse, or writing in Italics? Did they decide to write in italics because they were arses, or did the habit of writing with ovals and italic flourishes take root and encourage them into arse-like tendencies.”

Weirdly this highlighted an interesting point. The author teaches literature at a university. From that, I can only assume they thought that being an expert in putting words in the right order gave them authority to write about a topic that is really more in the realm of visual communication. Spoiler alert: it does not. Handwriting is not art but the only real difference between it and calligraphy is how nice your handwriting looks. If you want to read a good book about words you should look for one written by a graphic designer. They understand how to communicate visually, it’s literally their job.

This author single-handedly fuelled the early parts of my dissertation in a no-that’s-wrong kind of way. I’m not sure if this is a book I would recommend reading, but it is probably an easier read compared to others on this list. 

*My dissertation proved that this decline is really not as bad as some would like to suggest. For example, you wouldn’t be reading this if I had written it by hand. 

Writing On The Wall

Writing On The Wall is a book about social media, but specifically about older forms of social media from before computers were a thing. Think people writing essays and sharing them with friends, the telegram and even commonplace books were a form of social media. By social media, I just mean a thing that allows people to talk to other people. 

Funnily enough, the first part of my dissertation module looked at new forms of communication, including social media in the internet sense. This had the unfortunate side effect of helping me realise just how much I don’t like social media (yes, I realise that’s slightly ironic considering I’m writing this post). 

Paper: Paging Through History

Paper: Paging Through History is exactly what you might expect it would be. An entire account of the history of paper. How we got from substances like papyrus to the wood pulp paper we use today. You may be surprised to hear that this was an extremely informative book and was a massive help when I came to write my dissertation. It also inspired a post I wrote about the writing system in the Harry Potter books

If you’re into this sort of thing I’d recommend giving it a read. It’s always fascinating to learn that something seemingly insignificant, such as the production of paper, can have a massive effect on the development of the modern world. Did you know that notebooks are a relatively modern thing? Before about the 15th-century paper was rare, meaning it had to be kept for important documents. Notebooks come from a society that has an abundance of paper.

The Accidental Diarist

The Accidental Diarist is more of an academic book which looks at how we got from diaries, in the sense that you write about something which has happened, to diaries in a planning for something which will happen in the future sort of way. You may be surprised to hear that the development of planners is tied to developments in clock technology. 

This book is slightly expensive, I was able to get a copy through my university’s library. But if you enjoyed my post about commonplace books there is a chance you may find this interesting as well.

The History of Writing

There are many books about the entire 5000-year history of writing. The History of Writing just happens to be the one I chose. It goes into detail about how sounds became linked to symbols which eventually turned into letters of the alphabet. One of the problems with writing an essay about handwriting is that you have to understand the linguistic side of it. 

This is not a must-read book in the same way that the new Claire North book is a must-read. But I found it very informative, though a little out of date. 

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store is what I like to refer to as books about books. There isn’t anything specific about them it was able to help me in the dissertation writing process. It’s more about a general idea and helped me think about the topic differently. 

S by JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst

S is one of my favourite books because it’s an argument for physical books. It wouldn’t work if it was an ebook because that whole experience of having a physical book and finding things inside is part of the story. 

S is interesting because of how it uses the idea of annotating books. It’s fascinating to see how our attitudes to books have changed over the centuries. Annotating books used to be a really common thing, there have been studies on user-generated knowledge which show that students would use copies of books that had already been written in because the annotations added more information to what was already inside the book. Think Harry using Snape’s book in Half-Blood Prince. But this also shows how much our attitude in general towards books has changed. Writing in books used to be normal, while conversely, books were much rarer items. Books are more common (and less well made) and yet many treat them as precious objects. Writing in books and even to an extent books appearing “used” is seen as a bad thing. 

If you like that whole experience of finding things in books. Or if you’re anything like me and will buy books in charity shops because they have interesting annotations I would highly recommend checking out S


I haven’t actually counted so I hope that is 10 books. I have plans over the next few months to share more posts based on topics I mentioned in my dissertation. Considering that you’re reading this blog you should find them interesting. 

If you’ve come across any similar books please share in the comments. I’m always looking for new reads.

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