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Friday, Jun 23, 2017
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Did Bob Dylan prank us by possibly cribbing 'Moby-Dick' SparkNotes?

The whole world was gobsmacked when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature last year.

Multitudes argued whether songwriting even counts as literature. The general befuddlement continued as Dylan first failed to respond to the announcement at all for two weeks, then dispatched musician and poet Patti Smith to pick up the prize for him in Stockholm in December.

There was a step he couldn't outsource, though. In order to claim the $923,000 purse that accompanies the Nobel, Dylan had to submit an official lecture by this month.

He turned it in on deadline on June 4, in written and audio form (both available at nobelprize.org). It's a fascinating and entertaining lecture, in part discussing three classic literary works that inspired him at an early age: Homer's The Odyssey, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

But nothing is simple with Dylan. First writer Ben Greenman noted in a blog post that one of the quotations Dylan cites from Moby-Dick doesn't appear in the book. Andrea Pitzer, a writer for Slate, picked up on that and looked closely at all of the language used in the lecture about Melville's masterwork.

She found that a lot of that language seems to be strikingly similar to passages about Moby-Dick on the SparkNotes web site.

That's SparkNotes, cousin of CliffsNotes, refuges of slacker students who have a paper due and haven't done the reading.

I taught for more than a decade, including a lot of freshman English classes, and I can tell you that the bland, cut-and-paste-ready prose style of such sites is readily recognizable to teachers.

Pitzer writes, "Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site. And most of the key shared phrases in these passages ... do not appear in the novel Moby-Dick at all." (Find Pitzer's article, with a side-by-side comparison of 11 passages from the lecture and from SparkNotes, at slate.me/2slBtLy.)

As I write, neither Dylan nor the Nobel Committee have responded to requests for comment.

Dylan's career, of course, has been marked by a whole range of allusions, appropriations, invocations, mashups and downright plagiarism from various artistic sources. I mean, the man named one of his albums Love and Theft, and even that title might have been borrowed from a book about the history of racial appropriation.

Dylan, 76, began as a folk singer in the early 1960s, doing what every other folk singer did then: performing traditional folk music whose authorship was often lost to history. His unique brilliance was absorbing and transforming those old materials, as well as many other kinds of music, to build his own songs.

But he's been called out on numerous occasions for borrowing a bit too explicitly, as on his 2006 album Modern Times, which included several songs whose lyrics strikingly resembled the work of 19th century poet Henry Timrod.

Music isn't the only art form where Dylan's magpie tendencies surface. An exhibition of his paintings in 2011 was billed as a "visual journal" of his travels in Asia, but many of the paintings seemed to have been copied in detail from published photographs by other people. His acclaimed 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, contained uncredited passages from such writers as Jack London and Archibald MacLeish.

Every artist borrows, consciously or not, and all art is based in some way on what has gone before it. Much of Dylan's use of other materials is well within the bounds of such allusion and reference, and some isn't.

It's one thing to put great works of music and literature through the crucible of your own genius and produce new and dazzling art.

But SparkNotes? Dylan didn't even crib from the mighty Moby-Dick itself; he has, it seems, cribbed from SparkNotes.

Is it all just colossal coincidence? Possible. Is Dylan pranking us? More possible, given that he's been our cultural trickster-god for decades.

Or did that Nobel deadline loom, and did he think, you know, I really did love Moby-Dick when I was young, but it's been a long time since I read it and the book is nearly as big as the damn whale, so maybe I'll just log into SparkNotes?

He's taught us so much, but this time I wish Dylan had done his homework.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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