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Listen: Bob Dylan Reflects On Winning Nobel Prize In New Lecture

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Last fall, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which surprised Dylan as much as it did most of the world. Dylan, who took his sweet time acknowledging the prize and ultimately didn't attend the Nobel ceremony, is still grappling with what it means for a lifelong songwriter to win a prize for the written word, and he expressed that in his official Nobel lecture (which happens to be a pre-requisite for the $900K prize money that comes with the award).

"When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature," he begins. "I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I'm going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful."

Despite any reservations, Dylan is articulate, thoughtful, and entertaining throughout the 30 minute long speech, his warm and raspy voice bringing back memories of his much-missed Theme Time Radio Hour. After an anecdote about first being inspired by Buddy Holly and the various folk singers who helped shape his vernacular, he begins to connect his writing with the larger literary tradition:

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I had principals 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.

Most of the rest of the speech is given over to three specific books that have stuck with him since he first read them, and that have cast long shadows of influence over his body of work:
Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey. You can read a transcript of the entire speech here, but I encourage you to listen to Dylan's recitation if only for this:

By the end, Dylan still seems more comfortable placing himself in a folk and musical tradition rather than a literary one, brushing aside any talk of "immortality" and imploring people to seek out the music. (Of course, one could argue that anyone who could write a lovely speech this effortlessly, with certain turns of phrase and sentences practically floating above the page, may protest too much.)

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, "Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story."