Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab—captain of a ship called the Pequod—an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.
He goes on for about 800 more words relating the events, the characters, and the feel of Moby Dick. Then he gives much the same treatment to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front (“a horror story … a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals”), and Homer’s The Odyssey (“a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war”). In the 27-minute audio clip released by the Nobel committee, you can hear Dylan deliver these Cliff Notes of classics in his extremely distinctive drawl over soft piano tinkling.
The lecture marks the fittingly odd culmination of Dylan’s saga with the Nobel Committee. Last October, the Swedish Academy named him as the recipient of writing’s top honor, triggering think-piece wars over whether music can be literature and then devolving into a comedy of manners. One committee member called Dylan “impolite and arrogant” for not returning the Nobel committee’s phone calls immediately; he skipped the main prize ceremony, though he did send a statement. The awarding of 8 million in Swedish krona that accompanies the Nobel was contingent on Dylan delivering a lecture by June 10—a requirement it was not clear he would fulfill until his monologue arrived online Monday.
The speech itself is typically Dylan in a few ways: It seems perched between sincerity and trolling, draws from Western culture’s most elemental influences, and works according to its own logic. Reaction has been mixed; some people have pointed out that Dylan’s writing has the sophistication of a high-school book report (e.g.: “Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, ‘Call me Ishmael.’”). But part of the point surely is in the colloquial style of his retelling: He’s turning tomes into folktales. He’s also arguably doing something more subtle. Through summary, he’s showing how literature and song defy summary.
Read more at The Atlantic.