If you wondered why the Swiss Academy awarded singer/songwriter Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize for Literature last December, you need to hear Dylan discuss the books that shaped his songs.
As part of the prize, Dylan had to deliver a lecture on literature. So he wrote and then recorded his reflections on his work as well as the classic books that inspired him - including 'Gulliver's Travels' and 'A Tale of Two Cities.'
"They gave you a way of looking at life. An understanding of human nature. And a standard to measure things by. And I took all of that with me when I started composing lyrics," Dylan said. "And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally."
But of everything he read, three books stood out in his mind more than the rest. Here they are, along with tunes that reflect their themes.
"That team [of whalers] and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs," Dylan said of Herman Melville's classic tale of humanity's fight with nature. But to Dylan, it was also the story of an artist forcing his vision upon the world in "quotable, poetic phrases that can't be beat."
"Ahab...is a poet of eloquence," Dylan explained. "He says, 'The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails where my soul is grooved to run.' Or these lines, 'All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.'"
Erich Maria Remarque's tale of lost innocence in the trenches of World War I resonated with Dylan's own adolescent frustration. And the generation gap between young soldiers and their out-of-touch commanders likely influenced Dylan's own hostile attitude toward the status quo - especially during the Vietnam War, when the novel's tragedy was relived by a generation of young Americans.
"You were betrayed by your parents, your school masters, your ministers and even your own government," Dylan noted. "The general with the slowly smoked cigar betrayed you too. Turned you into a thug and a murderer. If you could, you'd put a bullet in his face...You've come to despise that older generation that sent you out into this madness. All around you, your comrades are dying...And you think, 'I'm only 20 years old, but I'm capable of killing anybody - even my father if he came at me.'"
Nothing epitomizes the unpredictability of life like the poet Homer's epic retelling of Odysseus and his mariners struggling to return home after the Trojan War. But even though the poem is over two thousand years old, it's still relevant because we are all Odysseus in some way, according to Dylan.
"In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you," he said. "You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices - sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and been so far blown back...You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you have also felt that ill wind -- the wind that blows you no good."
'Sing to Me, O Muse'
Dylan wrapped up his lecture on a humble note by quoting the opening of Homer's poem. "Sing in me, o muse. And through me, tell the story," Dylan said, suggesting that like his guitars and amps, he's nothing more than an instrument.
Check out the full lecture below.