Saturday, January 6, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters: New Book Brings Still More Insight Into His Genius

2017 was yet another good year for Dylan literature. Late fall as I began reading a friend's copy of Richard F. Thomas' Why Bob Dylan Matters, I put it aside till I could acquire my own copy so I could underline passages and write notes in the margins. Evidently the author, a George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard, teaches a class on Dylan which is nicknamed "Dylan 101" and called the "the coolest class on campus."

I read once that 100,000 books were written about Napoleon, the most written about person in the 19th century. One question this stat brings to mind might be, "What did all these author say that had not already been said?" And even though Dylan literature hardly compares to Napoleon in volume, the same question does emerge. It's probably something akin to scientists sharing new research on an old phenomenon. There's always a new angle or it wouldn't be relevant, and the lens through which Thomas peers does bring new revelations, new insights on Dylan's genius.

Genius
1. exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.

Some may chafe a bit at the use of the word genius, which Thomas uses to describe Dylan, but when you read the dictionary definitions, it's apparent that Albert Einstein was not the only genius of the past century, and that if a word is overused (see my rant against the word awesome) this doesn't necessarily mean it's inaccurate. In point of fact, the Nobel Prize was to some extent a ratification of his genius. (I'm guessing that Dylan himself would shuffle his feet and look a bit self-conscious about all this mumbo-jumbo adulation. Oh well.)

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When you read this book you encounter the mind of a man whose expertise is Classical poetry. When Pro. Thomas listened to Dylan he had a background most of the rest of us did not have, total familiarity with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero and their Greek and Roman comrades. As a result, he heard echoes, with connections most of us would have never made. At the very beginning of the book Thomas writes:

For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan's songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place. That's how Dylan matters to me, and what this book is about.

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The book is surprising on several levels. First, it is so accessible. If you fear boring erudition from a Harvard prof, you needn't worry. The guy who wrote it is quite down-to-earth and despite his titles and career, he is a fan who knows how to be one of us. Second, he sheds a brighter light on the plagiarism charges that some leveled against our contemporary Bard, noting that what Dylan was doing has literary precedents and is called intertextuality. Finally, we get new insights into many of the songs which we have been enjoying because, gosh darn, what he has been doing is more amazing than we even realized.

At this point in time there are few reviews at Amazon.com, in part because it is so new and perhaps in part because... ? It's a small enough quantity of comments that you'll get a good sense of where you find yourself with regard to making this a must have for your Dylan library or not.

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FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH DEPARTMENT
Preparations for 2018 Duluth Dylan Fest have been ongoing since last summer here in Duluth. A theme has been finalized and a schedule of events assembled. The week will kick off with a concert for the Armory on Saturday May 19 and will continue through Sunday May 27. Music, art, poetry, and more music... Mark your calendars.  Highlights always include the Singer-Songwriter competition and the Blood On The Tracks Express.

Meantime life goes on all around you. Engage it.

2 comments:

Big Daddy said...

What do you think of the Renza book published last Fall about Dylan 60s period lyrics?

Ed Newman said...

What I read about it made me want to read it, but the $82 price tag is a bit steep at this moment and I will wait for some birthday money or a damaged "review copy" or something. It's on myReading LIst.
For Christmas I also received Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, which I also plan to ingest this year.
Thanks for the note.
e.