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The literary world was astonished when the Nobel Prize Committee gave the prize for literature in 2016. Never before had the prestigious award gone to a writer of songs. Dylan was not present at the awards ceremony but wrote a lecture that was released in June 2017.
At the time, I didn’t read it. Probably you didn’t read it either. I can’t quote it in full because of copyright restrictions, but you can find it here. I found it exhilating to read, and I think you will too.
Dylan speaks of the musicians who inspired him, but his main theme is the relationship between literature and music. He writes at length about the books that shaped his values.
When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – 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. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
He then goes into detail about the impact that these three books had on him. You cannot understand his music without reading his passionate emotional attachment to these three books. We will forgive him for saying that he read these books in “grammar school,” as they were customarily taught in high school (if at all).