In many high school or college venues, the process of teaching literature has been reduced to performing cold and soulless vivisection on the most vibrant, engaging and instructive of stories. And what is the result? A corpse—a cold and soulless story—is left on the table, likely never to be approached again by the disillusioned student. John Jay Chapman captures the essence of this tragedy when describing what has become of William Shakespeare’s brilliance when many a teacher is through with him: “Many a lad has known less about Shakespeare than he did when the only phrase he knew was ‘Anoint thee, witch’—and he didn’t know where that came from. Now he can write the etymology of the words on an examination paper; but the witch herself has vanished. Information is the enemy of poetry.”
But this wasn’t the case for Bob Dylan. The sweep and verve, the agony and ecstasy of an obsessed sea captain, an anguished young soldier, and a homesick hero sprang off the pages at him. They were companions that challenged him to thoughtfully consider them, to be changed by them, to tell their story but in a different way. They possessed him and his music because obsession and anguish and homesickness are all parts of who Bob Dylan is. And we listen to Dylan spin the story anew because they are part of who we are too.
In our age of scientism, with our distasteful and delusionary sense that technique, efficiency, and hard work will demystify everything, the experience of literature is essential. After reading a critic’s analysis of Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton puckishly noted, “I hasten to say that the [scholar] is very learned and I am very ignorant. I do not profess to know much about Shakespeare, outside such superfluous trifling, as the reading of his literary works.”