Books·My Life in Books

7 writers who influenced Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan

The Nobel Prize-winner on 7 writers that shaped their life and work.
Bob Dylan has published six collections of his lyrics and six books collecting his drawing and paintings. (Claxton Telltale/Son)

American icon Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 13, 2016. The 75-year-old singer-songwriter, who has sold over 100 million records, was honoured for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

An artist who has often been influenced by his reading, Dylan has also counted some of the most influential writers in American literature as his friends. Here are some of his favourite books.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie is an influential folk singer, best known for his song "This Land Is Your Land". (Al Aumuller/Plume)

Woody Guthrie is widely cited as one of Dylan's most important influences. The autobiography of Guthrie, who composed "This Land Is Your Land," fell into the hands of Bob Dylan in September 1960, when he was a college student. In Dylan's memoir Chronicles, he describes reading the book "like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio." A few months after reading the book, Dylan told a New York crowd: "I been travellin' around the country, followin' in Woody Guthrie's footsteps." He wrote "Song to Woody" for his 1962 album Bob Dylan, followed up by the poem "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie," which can be heard on the album The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare & Unreleased.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac was one of the most prominent authors of the Beat Generation. (Tom Palumbo/Penguin Classics)

Bob Dylan was obsessed with Beat writing and the bohemian scene of the 1950s, so naturally he loved what he described as the "breathless, dynamic bop phrases" of Jack Kerouac. He said, "I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else's." In Chronicles, Dylan describes moving to Minneapolis from his remote Minnesota community for university: "I suppose what I was looking for was what I read about in On the Road — looking for the great city, looking for the speed, the sound of it, looking for what Allen Ginsberg called the 'hydrogen jukebox world.'" Though he'd never meet Kerouac, Dylan and Ginsberg visited the writer's grave in Lowell, Massachussetts, in 1975.

On War by Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the "moral" and political aspects of war. (Karl Wilhelm Wach/Princeton University Press)

On War is a philosophical treatise on the purpose and intrinsic violence of warfare by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian soldier during the Napoleonic campaigns in the early 19th century. In his memoir Chronicles, Dylan stated that "Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet" who can help you "take your own thoughts a little less seriously."

The poetry of Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud was an influential French poet. (Étienne Carjat/Modern Library)

Throughout his career, Dylan has referenced Arthur Rimbaud among his most important influences. He describes discovering the 19th century French poet in Chronicles: "I came across one of his letters called 'Je est un autre,' which translates into 'I is someone else.' When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier." Rimbaud gets a personal shout-out (alongside Paul Verlaine) on the song "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" on the 1976 album Blood on the Tracks.

The writing of Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was one of Russia's most cherished writers. (Penguin Classics)

Dylan was such a big fan of Leo Tolstoy that he went to the writer's historic estate, located outside of Moscow, and had this to say about his visit, from Chronicles: "...this was where [Tolstoy] went later in life to reject all his writings and renounce all forms of war. One day when he was 82 years old he left a note for his family to leave him alone. He walked off into the snowy woods and a few days later they found him dead of pneumonia. A tour guide let me ride his bicycle."

Stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Luke Short, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Luke Short, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (Nadar/George Charles Beresford)

Dylan cites Burroughs, Short, Verne and Wells as the story writers of his youth in Chronicles. He writes, "In the past, I'd never been keen on books and writers but I like stories. Stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote about the mythical Africa — Luke Short, the mythical Western tales — Jules Verne — H.G. Wells. They were my favourites but that was before I discovered the folksingers."

The Beat poetry of his friend Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsburg was a poet and one of the best known members of the Beat Generation and 1960s counterculture. (Hans van Dijk/HarperPerennial )

Dylan and Ginsberg's storied friendship is chronicled widely in the media. The New Yorker describes Ginsberg as a "sometime mentor" to Dylan: "...in the mid-1960s, the two would complete important artistic transitions, each touched and supported by the other. On and off, their rapport lasted for decades." The night after Ginsberg's death in 1997, Dylan performed "Desolation Row" at a New Brunswick show and dedicated the performance to his friend. Dylan said the song was Ginsberg's favourite. The song "See You Later Allen Ginsberg" appears on Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes.

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