I suppose it comes as no surprise, in light of this morning’s news, that I have been gorging on Bob Dylan all day. Though, no matter the news from the Swedes, this is a rather regular occurrence, so not much out of the ordinary here. Move along.
I remember being in a dressing room in 2011, stalking around with a copy of The New Yorker that had mentioned Bob was the odds on favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I hadn’t even considered that, but after thinking about it for two seconds, I became fixated on the idea and awaited the glad tidings. Well, Tomas Transtromer won and I cursed his name. This, like how I hate Ordinary People or The English Patient, is a gut level reaction and irrational, based on nothing but my pouting. As will become painfully obvious throughout these meandering thoughts, I find myself to be woefully under read and don’t see that ever changing, no matter how much I stick my nose in a book. So, that selection of the poet Transtromer basically put me in my place and told me, “Hey buddy, you don’t know shit.”
Well, now Dylan has won. I wasn’t expecting it. I knew they had delayed the announcement until today, but couldn’t really gather why. They announced most of the Nobel Laureates last week, but we had to wait until 11 days later to find out who was our Literature winner. I woke up early this morning, around 5 AM, and because I am old, I had to pee. I pulled my phone, saw an alert from the New York Times that began “The Italian Playwright Dario Fo…” and I dropped my phone back on my bed and mumbled to myself in frustration that another writer I’d never heard of had won the Nobel and goddamnit, this is dumb. Well, I was wrong, on two fronts. First. Fo won the Nobel in 1997 and I had no idea, because I am an idiot. Second, a bit later today, when I had started working, I pulled up my usual suspect of web pages as I settled into the morning. I saw that horrific, xenophobic, misogynist , racist monster at the top of the Huffington Post and I started to scroll down and there was Bob’s face. I didn’t even think of the Nobel. I just scrolled wondering what news there was and then I read the bold headline:
Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I probably made a sound, though I can’t say for sure. I immediately chatted my friend Michael, in all caps, and screamed at him that Dylan had won. I pawed for my phone, picked it up, saw new alerts from the New York Times and Huffington Post telling me the same news and I immediately started a spree of texts.
“Holy shit!! Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize in Literature!!”
I started looking around online; I could not focus on work. I am sure this seems a bit overwrought, but I’m telling you, this knocked me on my ass. And I think there’s an explanation for this. It goes like this (if you’d like to sing along):
When I was a kid, I sat in a friend’s room and looked up at one shelf in his closet and saw all of his books and I was in awe that he could own that many books, let alone have read them. I mentioned this to him and he said, “Oh, Kevin, you’ve read that many books, easily.” I wasn’t so sure. I did bring home stacks of books from the library, but most went unread. I would buy large, challenging looking books, read the first 100 pages and then set them aside.
In college, I sat up one night, inebriated, thumbing through my roommate’s bookshelf, thinking how I wanted to be a reader. Yes, I had that cliche of a thought: I want to be a reader. So, I found a Bukowski book and that’s a subject of another essay. At the age of 20 (the age Rimbaud quit writing poetry) I decided I was a reader. I had read plenty of books before then, but they were not part of a full on thing but rather dog eared anomalies stacked up in my past.
I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. I could go into a list, but will spare you. It was a pretty monochromatic collection and it thrilled me.
Around this same time, I had my first real Dylan experience. I had heard plenty of Dylan before this, but hadn’t really found much worth in it. I thought, of all things, it sounded obvious. At a party, at about 330 AM (speaking of cliches), I was sitting on a couch while “Visions of Johanna” played. I was talking to my friend next to me, lost in a cacophony of voices when I heard:
Even Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you could tell by the way she smiles
I sat forward and said, “What was that?” as if someone in the room had said it. Everyone ignored me, but I then dialed into the rest of that song, listening intently, thinking of that one line, over and over. That’s not even like the 15th best line in that song, but it’s the line that stuck out to me.
A number of years later, on November 30, 2006, feeling extremely sentimental and sad, I chose Blood on the Tracks to be the record I was going to listen to that day. I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov; I was making a concerted efforts with the classics. I put the album on, and like before, these were songs I had already heard. I sat in the back of the tour van. Late autumn Virginia passed by in a blur and then:
People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
In an effort to avoid to much digression, I will spare the reader the exact reason this hit me so hard, but it hit hard. I started crying. I thought of that line over and over. I texted my friend that Blood on the Tracks was perfect and I was only on track 2! That was the day I became a committed lover of Dylan. And I always will be.
Fast forward almost ten years and here I am, sitting in my apartment, books to my left and right, seven shelves packed with them, and I am still trying to be a reader. I have not read a vast majority of the classics or really even a vast majority of the non classics, but I’m trying. I prefer reading to anything and will continue to do it until I am no longer able. But, I didn’t study it closely in school, write long papers on the plot dynamics of Dickens, or even study the books assigned me. I just came to reading because I wanted to and, more importantly, because I had to. So, when I read a name I’ve never heard of winning the Nobel, I am not surprised. I try to keep an open mind, but before today would kind of sneer to myself that they were missing the boat and Dylan had better win this.
Well, he did. And I believe it is literature.
When I am drunk, I like to repeat the ridiculous phrase, “Music is it, man.” While that is cloying, I think the basic point is evident: to my mind, music, more than any other art form, universally touches human beings. I find my respite in literature, specifically fiction, non fiction and poetry; others in plays, or film, or painting, and so on. But the best music does not ask of us, it only gives.
And here comes Bob Dylan. A man who has written the greatest lyrics I’ve known. His is a literature couched in song and storytelling. He is a writer of the highest order and a man who has taught me more about life than a lot of the books or classic stories I’ve had to read and study. He is immediate and layered, relatable and obtuse, both comforting and grating, challenging, pithy and grumpy, hilarious and so, so sad; the great American Songbook in the mold of one man. His work is literature. He deserves this Nobel Prize.