When awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan responded in his traditional, nontraditional way: he gave no comment for two weeks after the announcement, ignored the Academy’s calls, didn’t attend the ceremony, and collected the award in a hoodie four months later. But the Academy stipulates that winners must give a lecture within six months of the ceremony to collect their prize money, and Dylan slipped in a rambling, 27-minute ode to literature just under the wire.

Sounding like a true troubadour over a jazz piano arrangement, he begins with his deep love for Buddy Holly and Lead Belly, two early influences that opened his eyes to the vibrance and power of music that’s written with truth. He devoured early folk artists, picking up on the distinct vernacular of “ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs.” And when he himself started writing, it was on the basis of the folk vocabulary he’d learned through song.

But he brought something else to his songwriting as well. Principles and perspectives he’d learned while reading the classics in school: “Don QuixoteIvanhoeRobinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s TravelsTale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.” Going on to detail the three books that really stuck with him  – Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey – he ends on a quote from Homer: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”

Though Dylan has notoriously shied away from any poetic elevation (famously calling himself just “a song and dance man”), his work has long drawn from a variety of literary influences – largely the Romantics, early Southern folklore and the Beats. His songs often reference the work of other writers, to which he’s affirmed that “in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” And heavily influenced by Kerouac & Co, he said, “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected. It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti… I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic… it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.”

Read on for a list of Bob Dylan’s literary influences, largely poetic, but sprinkled with musician bios and soulful stories of personal transformation. Couple with his smoky 2016 Nobel Lecture, then dip into the reading lists of fellow rock greats David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Patti Smith.

The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club by Sonny Barger

“I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book.” -BD

The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young by Scott Barretta

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (also rec’d by Anthony Bourdain)

Stories by Anton Chekhov

On War by Carl von Clausewitz (also rec’d by Nelson Mandela)

Dylan has stated that “Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet” and his writing can make you “take your own thoughts a little less seriously.”

Victory by Joseph Conrad (also rec’d by Joan Didion)

Conrad is featured in the artwork for “Desire” and it’s thought that his novel Victory was an inspiration for “Black Diamond Bay.”

The Complete Poetry and Prose by John Donne (also rec’d by Martin Luther King Jr.)

The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry by Angel Flores

Jerry Garcia: The Collected Artwork by Jerry Garcia

Foreword by Dylan.

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (also rec’d by John Lennon & Patti Smith)

“Allen doesn’t have to sing ‘Kaddish,’ man. You understand what I mean? He just has to lay it down. He’s the only poet that I know of. I can’t really tell you all my feelings of him because they are just too total. He’s the only person I respect who writes, that just totally writes. He don’t have to do nothing, man. Allen Ginsberg, he’s just holy.” -BD

One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding by Robert Gover

“I got a friend who wrote a book, it’s called ‘One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding,’ it’s about this straight-A college kid, fraternity guy, and a 14-year-old negro prostitute, and it’s got two dialogues in the same book. One chapter is what he’s doing and what he does, and the next chapter is her view of him. It actually comes out and states something that’s actually true… This guy who wrote it, you can’t label him. He’s unlabelable.” -BD

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps by Emmett Grogan

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (also rec’d by Bruce Springsteen)

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

“I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words along. Pick up the book anywhere, turn to any page and he hits the ground running. ‘Bound for Glory’ is a hell of a book.” -BD

The Odyssey by Homer (also rec’d by Jay-Z)

Mexico City Blues by Jack Kerouac

“Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959. It blew my mind.” -BD

On The Road by Jack Kerouac (also rec’d by David Bowie)

On the Road speeds by like a freight train. It’s all movement and words and lusty instincts that come alive like you’re riding on a train. Kerouac moves so fast with his words. No ambiguity. It was very emblematic of the time. You grabbed a hold of the train, hopped on and went along with him, hanging on for dear life.” -BD

Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards by Al Kooper

The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax

Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” by Alan Lomax

Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson

A soulful story woven together from Dylan’s back catalogue.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (also rec’d by Bruce SpringsteenPatti SmithSteve JobsTilda Swinton)

“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.” -BD

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

“I think he’s the greatest American writer.” -BD

Woody Guthrie: Radical American Patriot by Bill Nowlin

Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta by Robert Palmer

All Access: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Photography of Ken Regan by Ken Regan

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

“All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.” -BD

The Oxford Book of English Verse by Christopher Ricks (also rec’d by Ernest Hemingway)

Selected Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (also rec’d by Marina Abramovic)

A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud

“When I read [Rimbaud’s ‘I is someone else’] the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.” -BD

Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga

The American Songbag Selected Poems by Carl Sandburg

Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues by Arnold Shaw

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (also rec’d by Bruce Springsteen & Nelson Mandela)

In high school, Dylan wrote a 22-page essay on the book, to which his teacher gave a “B.”

Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians by Thucydides

“A narrative which would give you the chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.” -BD

Poems by Henry Timrod

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also rec’d by Ernest HemingwayMartin Luther King Jr.Nelson Mandela)

Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero by Ed Ward

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (also rec’d by Bruce SpringsteenMaya Angelou)

(via Bob Dylan’s official site, Chronicles, Bob Dylan: The Essential InterviewsThe New Yorker)

Books by Bob Dylan

Tarantula (1971)

Chronicles (2004 – rec’d by Bruce Springsteen)

If Dogs Run Free (2013)

The Nobel Lecture (2016)

Categories: Musicians


44 Books Bob Dylan Digs

  1. Bob Dylan also offered extremely high praise for Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music: “An overwhelming book about an overwhelming characters in the music field . . . We owe Barry Mazor a debt of gratitude for telling Peer’s incredible life story, his monumental accomplishments, putting them all in one place, and bringing them to the light.”

  2. What about Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love”?
    It shares the cover photo with Bob’s “Together Through Life’.

  3. I know Dylan has also read Bound for Glory because he said so once. But there must also be history books he has read. Being a fan of the Civil War. Yet if you really want to understand how the world works you need to read economic history. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan had read Modern Times by Paul Johnson using that tittle for one of his albums. There is also a poetry book that inspired Planet Waves it is called Planet News which undoubtedly Dylan must have read.

  4. I have read some of the books on this list, some are also on most high school reading lists. I dont think this is any revelation of great reading…As a librarian I have seen many students take out Cliff Notes when doing a report..I did not approve of this but at least they make some effort. Many classic authors of American fiction are not on his reading list..Just my opnion, I sm still waiting for Chronicles 2 to be written…I loved the first one…

  5. There’s no surprise here , quite easy to know that Bob is a well read person. Since he has said he spends a lot of time reading ; I am sure the list isn’t exhausted . Intelluals always crave great writers works ; one feels they have to read more of the authors writing , or what you’re reading gives a reflection of a guided tour to your curiosity .

  6. Just when I thought I might live long enough to finish what’s on that get to shelf, my stack got higher. Ah, more to read, some I’ve read and more to anticipate. Another thought provoking, delicious day, it’s kickin.

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