Opinion | Alex Beam

Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture: Short, sweet and on time (just)

Bob Dylan.
Chris Pizzello/Assoicated Press/File
Bob Dylan.

OCT. 13, 2016, THE DAY that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was one of the happiest days of my life.

Literature is a big word — the eco-lawn people like to leave “literature” on our doorstep — and it certainly embraces Dylan’s decades-long output of ballads, poetry, songs, broadsides, and prose. Although largely unnoticed, the Nobel Committee radically expanded the literature category by giving the 2015 prize to Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist (oh my!) who mixed fact and fiction (my oh my!) in her moving tales of the forgotten women and men of the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, self-appointed guardians of the literary flame, such as Manhattan boulevardier Gary Shteyngart, protested the Dylan Nobel. “I totally get the Nobel committee,” Shteyngart tweeted, trumpily. “Reading books is hard.”


Reading books like Shteyngart’s derivative and overtooled “Super Sad True Love Story” is hard. Listening to Dylan can be maddening too, but more often than not his work, which Boston University literature professor Christopher Ricks has praised as an “equilateral triangle” of poetry, song, and performance, is beautiful and thought-provoking.

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“I cannot think of anything that people of great gifts do with language which Dylan is unable to do,” Ricks told WBUR-FM on the day of the Nobel announcement.

Last week, Dylan finally unpacked his Nobel lecture, which he had to deliver before June 10 in order to collect his $922,000 prize. You can either read it or listen to a superbly engineered recitation, accompanied by soft piano music, on the Nobel website. Guess what? Dylan devoted most of his speech to celebrating literature.

“Learned it all in grammar school,” he says, making you wonder how Hibbing, Minn., got such great grade schools. “Principles, sensibilities, and an informed view of the world” he claims to have extracted from “Don Quixote,” “Ivanhoe,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dylan calls those classics “typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by.”

The 26-minute-long lecture goes on to parse three great books in detail: “Moby-Dick;” “All Quiet on the Western Front” (oddly, a book that Donald Trump claims to have read twice, calling it “one of the greatest books of all time”), and Homer’s “Odyssey.” Dylan is a rambunctious critic-commentator. Of “Moby-Dick,” he writes: “Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo-Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules — they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book.”


Is Melville getting a Dylan bump? I noticed that “Moby” was hovering in Amazon’s Top Ten Classic Action Bestsellers. A man can hope, can’t he?

“So what does it all mean?” Dylan has the temerity to ask. Good question! He reminds us of Odysseus’s visit to the glorious warrior Achilles in the underworld. Odysseus honors Achilles, who “rulest mightily among the dead.” But Achilles spurns his homage: “Speak not soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as a slave of a pauper, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”

You crave meaning? There it is — a very bold, very Jewish, very life-affirming rejection of the afterlife, the underworld, and the pie-in-the-sky promise of a putative heaven. It’s life and life only! Live it now.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.