Like many, I was happy to see Bob Dylan receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was a worthy celebration of an individual who has had a profound influence on our culture, but for me, the appreciation for this award goes much deeper. As an adult who has spent much of his career working with teenagers and young adults, I frequently lament how little they seem to know or care about music, and I believe that Dylan’s win might help lure some followers to this under-appreciated subgenre in the literary arts.
I understand that many people take issue with Dylan’s win because music relies on instrumentation, time signatures, and other things that don’t enter into the traditional understanding of literature. However, even if I were sympathetic with this narrow view of what constitutes “literature,” I would say that Dylan’s work deserves recognition for the same reason obscure and overlooked authors often receive the prize: by awarding him, the Nobel committee is drawing attention to a medium that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in popular culture.
Let’s face it, we live in an age where literature is the predominant, almost monolithic form of art. Of course almost everyone these days has a book collection they read from for fun, and no one goes on a long car trip without a whole stack of books to tide them over, even as more studies show that reading a book while driving can be nearly as distracting as talking on your phone. But reading is reinforced in ways that we don’t even think about. Whether it’s classic Alan Ginsberg poems showing up in car commercials, or a grocery store piping in the soothing narration of Sue Grafton through its speakers, literature is one of those things that’s omnipresent in society today.
Part of it has to do with how easily literature can be integrated into other artistic mediums — can you think of a memorable movie scene that doesn’t have a character reading a book? — and of course the advent of digital book files in the late ‘90s made it easier than ever for people to amass huge literary collections. But the other part, I’m afraid, is plain old inertia: we mindlessly consume the books around us because that’s what culture has taught us is “normal.” And young people growing up in this culture accept it, as young people do.
Now, I know this is tricky territory for any old vinyl-bound music-lover to navigate. I don’t want to fall into the cliché of castigating a generation of slack-jawed, brain-dead teenagers leafing through stacks of Stephen King and Danielle Steel novels, oblivious to the outside world until it intrudes on their reading. Nor do I want to recite pearl-clutching accounts of bacchanalian book readings, where heavy drug use and rowdy bookheads set an unsuspecting trap for impressionable teenagers who just wanted to see their favorite Norwegian existentialist poetry performed live. I know that such stories are exaggerated, and not representative of most people’s experiences in the world of letters.
In fact, reading was a big part of my own childhood, from the Mother Goose nursery rhymes I learned as a baby, to book series like Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club that all the cool kids read in elementary school (I understand the cool kids read Harry Potter now), and, of course, the inevitable teenage rebellion, where I got really into Latin American postmodernism and wore a Borges T-shirt that I refused to wash for six months straight. Like any kid growing up in America, I was inundated with literature.
But it was my discovery of music that truly changed my life. An encounter with an excellent music elective class at my high school led to me joining band. There were only six or seven of us, and yes, we did all wear embroidered uniforms with large brass buttons and epaulets, but we didn’t think these uniforms were any more ridiculous than the black turtlenecks and berets the Poetry Club would all put on before they performed at the school football games. More important than the fashion, more important even than the constant romantic drama within the group, was feeling that my interests weren’t some weird cultural anomaly, but were shared by others, if only a few.
I had that feeling again when I learned that the Nobel committee was awarding Dylan, finally giving music its rightful place as a vital sub-form of literature. Now, I’m no starry-eyed idealist. I know that a lot of people look at music as a fundamentally old-fashioned form of entertainment that might have been fine when your only other options were baiting a bear or burning a witch, but which just can’t compete with the latest Gillian Flynn page-turner. I know bards aren’t going to come back, and playing music in public will always be a niche activity at best.
But part of me still feels like that young music fan who grew up listening to the music of Dylan and others, who spent far too much time among dusty stacks of LPs in the school library, who fiercely embraced the social stigma of being a “vinylbug.” And that part of me is happy today. People today may not appreciate the sounds of musical instruments, and may find the meter of songwriting to be overly rigid for their taste, but now, some might consider the idea that a song is a book worth reading.