As some parts of our lives return to a kind of normal, Josh and Ray ask authors and philosophers about what's been on their summer reading lists.
Every once in a while, especially after one of our more intricately-produced, multi-segment episodes, I sneak out from behind the mixing board to offer some insights into the process of producing the program. This time, however, I’m chiming in as part of this week’s annual Summer Reading special to let you in on some of my own reading plans.
I developed a serious interest in Bob Dylan scholarship in the early 2000s while I was getting a PhD in Linguistics and was living in Paris on a teaching exchange. For reasons lost to the Paris winter rains, I picked up a copy of Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. With ample time on my hands for Napster-era online music scouring, I devoured the music and the book. After making it through a couple of the standard biographies, I began to encounter ever more reflective and analytical writing on Dylan and his work (along with, to be sure, plenty of dross). Returning to the US to finish my dissertation only increased the urgency of my quest in this more worldly domain.
For better or worse, there aren’t many figures in mainstream popular culture who’ve attracted as much academic attention for challenging assumptions and making us think about things in new ways as the man born Robert Zimmerman. At least since the 1980s, if not earlier, his work has been the subject—sometimes defensively—of serious literary, musical, and socio-cultural analysis, in scholarly journals and in an ever-increasing number of books. Since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, and especially on the heels of his 80th birthday this past May, the amount of published material has been growing exponentially, from an increasing number of disciplinary perspectives, and from an increasingly international set of scholars.
One just recently published (and just arrived on my doorstep) is The World of Bob Dylan, co-edited by Sean Latham, Professor of English at the University of Tulsa and Director of the new Institute for Bob Dylan Studies there. Yes, you read that right—due to open to the public in 2022, the new institute joins the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa and is centered around the Bob Dylan Archive, a depository of about 100,000 items including lyric manuscripts, unreleased recordings, unseen films and photographs, and other artifacts acquired from the man himself in 2016.
Researchers have already begun to access some of the material (resulting in one of Dylan’s leading biographers, Clinton Heylin, writing a new, significantly more detailed book that revises much of his previously-updated Behind the Shades Revisited). In Latham’s book, more than two dozen critics and scholars “address themes and topics central to Dylan’s life and work: the Blues, his religious faith, Civil Rights, Gender, Race, and American and World literature.” Needless to say, I can’t wait to dig in.
I recently finished another 80th birthday book, an extended essay of sorts by music writer Paul Morley, You Lose Yourself You Reappear: The Many Voices of Bob Dylan. Morley was contracted to write the book before the coronavirus pandemic eliminated what he thought would be its starting point, a Dylan concert he was planning to attend last summer. 2020 became the first calendar year since 1977 in which Dylan did not perform a single concert (he had been playing at least 80 shows a year since 1988). Moreover, it had been 8 years since his last album of original material, 2012’s Tempest.
As a result the book is in part a reflection on a question that Morley admits some have been asking for at least 20 years: What if that’s it? What if there's no more Bob Dylan music to come? At some point, of course, we will have to contend with the absence of an artist who has been so prolific and omnipresent for more than half a century. And yet Dylan did release a new album of originals in 2020, Rough and Rowdy Ways (and even scored his first #1 single with the surprise April release of Murder Most Foul), such that Morley’s book becomes an extended meditation on the meaning of Dylan writ large.
Dylan’s “meaning” is, of course, notoriously slippery (when asked in 1965 what his songs were about, he replied, “Some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five minutes, and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12”), but leave it to the academics to try. There have been numerous Dylan Studies conferences and edited volumes in the last decade or so, but here are a few of the most recent I've looked at:
- All Along Bob Dylan: America and the World (Routledge)
- New Approaches to Bob Dylan (University Press of Southern Denmark)
- Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature (Palgrave Macmillan)
Each of these international collaborations is highly multidisciplinary, with each contributor often focused on some relatively narrow—not to say obscure—aspect of Dylan’s oeuvre, well beyond the old-school study of his (printed) lyrics as poetry or literature. Suffice it to say I’m strangely sympathetic to these endeavours, but of course academic writing on the arcana of pop culture can be a little less accessible.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a 2019 book by UC Berkeley Professor of Comparative Literature and French Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. I attended a talk by Hampton at Stanford (having read the book) in which he demonstrated his analysis on a small set of songs. He’ll be expanding that approach as part of a Stanford Continuing Education course this summer, “Bob Dylan at 80: A Deep Dive into Eight Classic Albums,” which I plan to attend (virtually). Maybe we’ll see each other there.
Photo by jt morkis on Flickr