When Bob Dylan was selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 2016, many critics openly wondered why the Swedish Academy chose a songwriter for the honor. In his Nobel Prize lecture given this week, Dylan wondered the same thing.
Sure, he’s an iconic figure in popular American culture, but a Nobel laureate? And for literature?
I’ve never been what you might call a fan of Dylan – I’ve never owned his music and don’t know his lyrics by heart – but I applauded the Swedish Academy’s choice.
As an English teacher, I spend my days trying to get students to read, understand, and appreciate literature. Literature is my tool of choice to help students think clearly about their world and themselves. Literature – whether shaped into novels and plays or poetry and song lyrics – is how we know what it means to be human. More than that, it is how we learn what kind of humans we want to be.
In education, literature is often downplayed in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula these days. But reading for pleasure – which for most people means reading literature – isn’t going away.
In a recent study of reading practices in the UK, the National Literary Trust noted that the number of school children who reported enjoying reading “very much” or “quite a lot” is the highest since the study began 12 years ago.
That’s encouraging news. Children who enjoy reading perform better in school, not just in classes that require reading but in other subjects such as math. I give my English classes daily opportunities to read self-selected material for pleasure, and in the past, whenever students had free time, they pulled out their library novels. Now, however, they are more likely to pull out their phones to play games or text their friends. That children value reading as highly as they do suggests that despite many distractions, they get genuine pleasure and meaning from literature.
Although Dylan began his Nobel lecture with a fond call back to his musical influences, he spent most of his time talking about Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey, three pieces of classic literature that he read in school.
“Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes,” Dylan said in his lecture. “When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. ‘I just died, that’s all.’ There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
“That’s what songs are, too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read... I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story.’”
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org