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As soon as Amanda Lastoria was accepted into a master’s program in publishing at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., she started searching for a university where she could pursue a PhD. Surprisingly, she couldn’t find a university in North America offering such a degree.
Undaunted, she approached Simon Fraser University, which she knew offered Canada’s only master’s program in publishing.
“I thought it would be the best school for pioneering a PhD in publishing,” says Lastoria, who had worked at publishing houses in the U.K. and Toronto after completing her master’s program.
John Maxwell, a publishing professor who is now the director of the SFU program, helped her develop her thesis proposal and joined an interdisciplinary group of supervisors from English, communication and publishing to support her work as SFU’s first PhD student in publishing.
The choice to study Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for her thesis was strategic. To build a strong case study for researching the evolution of book design and production, Lastoria needed to find a title that had been around for a long time and had a relatively stable text despite changes in packaging over time.
Her interdisciplinary course work and research drew on bibliography, book history, publishing history, literary theory and her professional experience. She wanted to demonstrate how design and production values can open up new audiences for a book and also alter its meaning.
Over 150 years of Alice, there have been countless editions published for many different audiences. These include board books for children, graphic novels for teens, leather-bound hardcovers for adults, and even an interactive e-book. For her purposes, Lastoria focused on printed English language editions attributed to Carroll that were published in England or America. She narrowed hundreds of editions down to 46 that she discussed in her dissertation.
When she went down the rabbit hole, so to speak, Lastoria discovered that author Lewis Carroll had also served as art director for the book. This added to the significance of her research, as she is the first person to recover this aspect of his work.
During one of her research trips to Oxford and London she also discovered a readymade community of dedicated “Carrollians.” They devote their lives to studying every obscure detail about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They welcomed her to join their 150th anniversary boat ride down the River Thames — retracing a trip that Carroll had made in 1862.
These “colourful characters” have a passion that drives them, says Lastoria.
“Their work has been really valuable for my research and I relied on it a lot.”
They told her details about his life and work that clarified her research, such as whether he was involved in the edition published soon after he died.
At times, completing her PhD may have seemed as elusive as a Cheshire cat but, after eight years and countless hours poring over different versions of Alice, Lastoria is very proud of her accomplishments.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to university at all, so it’s a big deal.”
She continues to forge her own path. She is developing a new course on the history of publication design for the undergraduate publishing minor this summer. She’s also writing a book based on her doctoral research. With her passion for research and extensive industry experience, Lastoria hopes to continue her work in both areas.
“My ultimate goal would be to blend industry and academia.”
To keep up with Amanda’s research, follow her on Twitter @amandalastoria.