Bob Dylan's book, Chronicles, Volume One
, has been named one of The 10 Best Books of 2004
by The New York Times
. I just finished reading the book, and it's great, but I don't know if it deserves to be called one of the 10 best out of all the thousands of books published in 2004. The book is a memoir, not an autobiography, and it rambles back and forth in time with an intimate, conversational tone. One moment Dylan is a struggling young folk singer sleeping on friends' sofas; the next he's a superstar with fans camped out in his front yard and climbing on his roof to peek in through his windows.
What surprised me was the high quality of Dylan's writing throughout much of the book. As he does in the best of his songwriting, he can really make you feel part of a moment. I was also surprised at all the philosophers and poets he alludes to, especially when writing of his younger bohemian days: Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot, and others. And, of course, the Beat writers
, whom he quotes or mentions several times throughout the book. (He writes of a winter's evening shared with U2's Bono, drinking a case of Guinness together and talking about Jack Kerouac.)
Above: Bob Dylan with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg
I was disappointed that Dylan doesn't mention at all his flirtation with evangelical Christianity, nor does he mention any of the albums he recorded during that time ("Slow Train Coming," "Saved," and "Shot of Love"). The only references he makes to religion are a fleeting reference to a visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and a bit about Jimmy Swaggart's fall from grace with a prostitute -- which may or may not have inspired Dylan's song, "Disease of Conceit" ("This incident might have had something to do with inspiring the song, but then again, it's hard to say"). He goes out of his way, as he always has, to avoid being pinned down or labelled. As Tom Carson writes in his New Yorks Times review of the book
, "to point out that 'Chronicles' is designed to manipulate our perceptions is simply to affirm that it's genuine Dylan. The book is an act, but a splendid one..." I agree. But one of the 10 Best Books of 2004? Maybe, maybe not. If you like Bob Dylan's music, you'll like this book -- and you'll probably be inspired, as I was, to dig out all your old Dylan albums and listen to them again.