Dylan Speaks: Nobel Speech Is Defense of Western Canon

'I hope what I say will be worthwhile' — then he proceeded with eloquence and beauty

by Lee Habeeb | Updated 07 Jul 2017 at 1:27 PM

“We hoped the news would be received with joy, but you never know,” said Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy after announcing the choice of Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in literature last fall.

Many loved the choice — such as Salman Rushdie, author of “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses.” “We live in a time of great lyricist-songwriters — Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits — but Dylan towers over everyone,” he told The Guardian.

Others were not so impressed.

"This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush," the novelist Hari Kunzru said.

Irvine Welsh, author of "Trainspotting," said that although he was a Dylan fan, "This is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies."

Dylan, the first American to win the Nobel prize for literature since Toni Morrison back in 1993, has always inspired debate. But few songwriters have inspired more imitation, and few have had more songs of theirs covered.

For anyone still on the fence about Dylan's contribution to literature, I can only urge a reading of his lyrics while listening to the music. There's a reason: Some music is meant to be consumed from the outside in — Dylan's was meant to be consumed from the inside out.

The range and power of his art will stun you, from his early folk days to his revolutionary recordings like "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blood on the Tracks," from his remarkable Christian period —"Ring Them Bells," "Every Grain of Sand," and "Gotta Serve Somebody" are gospel masterpieces — right through to his stark blues period and the writing on records like "Time Out of Mind" and "Love and Theft." Listen to "It's Not Dark Yet" — and try not to hear literature and the call of literature's great themes.

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For those of us who call ourselves Dylan fans, when the Nobel prize was announced we wondered: What would come next? Would Dylan fulfill the final requirement of accepting the award and give the required lecture to the Nobel Foundation? It would be so unlike him. Or would he simply not show up? That would also seem unlike him — he always shows up.

Last week, Dylan did what only Dylan would do: He released a recorded speech to the Nobel Foundation. It was, among other things, part autobiography, part music history, and,  in the end, a radical defense of classic literature and the western canon, from "The Odyssey" to "Moby Dick." (go to page 2 to continue reading)

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