BOOK REVIEW: Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

Why Dylan MattersWhy Dylan Matters by Richard F Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Obviously, in the annals of popular music, the work of Bob Dylan matters. To make sense of the title and related objective of this book (which might otherwise seem presumptuous and demeaning) one has to know a little about some recent history of the politics of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (No, not the internal scandal that delayed the issuance of the 2018 Prize to 2019.) In 2016, an American hadn’t won since 1993 (Toni Morrison,) and given the relative volume of publications from America this was coming to be seen as a major “screw you” to the nation’s literary community. The Nobel committee claimed it was because American authors didn’t get their works translated and were too insular with respect to the global literary community. Still, the disparity was on the minds of many. Then, Bob Dylan was issued the Prize. While some who were offended by this disparity were placated, many thought it was an even bigger “screw you” than if the Committee again hadn’t issued it to an American – like it was a “you asked for it, you got it; now shut up for at least the next 15 years!” kind of award. I doubt anyone would deny that, as a pop music lyricist, Bob Dylan is brilliant – if not the best — but for many that still just made him a middling poet. (Dylan wrote one piece of prose poetry, “Tarantula” as well as “memoirs” [that were apparently largely an act of creative writing,] but only his lyrics could feasibly merit issue of the award.)

It was with that mess in mind that Thomas delivers this book. It seems to be his objective to not just prove that Dylan matters — generally speaking — but that Dylan’s work matters as literature – presumably, such that he’s at least as deserving of the Nobel Prize as any living American poet, story-writer, or novelist. The thrust of Thomas’s approach is in showing that Dylan’s work is dialed into the global literary canon. As a classicist, Thomas puts particular emphasis on Dylan’s stealing from, and referencing of, Greek and Roman figures like Homer and Ovid. (I mean “stealing” only in the sense that word used by artists, and there is considerable discussion of that subject, herein.) However, he does also show how Dylan uses and references other poets from Shakespeare to an obscure Confederate poet.

So, the logical question is whether Thomas answers his book’s titular question with enough authority to convince the reader that Dylan does matter. Thomas certainly convinces us why Dylan matters enough to have classes taught about him, like the one Thomas teaches a Harvard. However, I can’t say that I was convinced that Dylan is on-par with… for instance, Cormac McCarthy or Salman Rushdie (who resides in the US, as I understand it) as a major literary figure. While Thomas does show that Dylan’s work is literature because Dylan’s work is wrapped up in literature, the only real argument he offers for whether Dylan is at the highest echelon of literature is his intense fan-boy devotion. We see a lot of comments like: “He had all that he needed to write ‘Masters of War,’ the greatest anti-war song ever written.” Not “one of the best,” not “the best, in my opinion,” not “the best rock-n-roll anti-war song,” but a gratuitous presumption that nothing else could be considered in the running enough for there to be a debate. Thomas’s enthusiasm that Dylan is among the biggest artistic geniuses of our time – if not all time – is certainly potent, but not necessarily compelling.

The book is annotated, has a bibliography and a graphic discography.

I enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about the works of Bob Dylan and I found the author’s fervor for Dylan’s songs contagious — if not altogether convincing that it merits Dylan’s inclusion with Hemingway and Faulkner as an American literary icon. [Though I would not in the least challenge his inclusion as an icon of folk, rock, or pop music.] If you’re interested in Dylan, or this question of whether he’s the best American for the job of Literary Nobel Laureate, this book is worth a read.

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