Following the announcement that the musician Bob Dylan was the recipient of the Nobel Prize fo Literature, the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, was asked if the decision signaled a broader defintion of literature.
The reply, paraphrasing Dylan: "The times they are a changing, perhaps."
Indeed, while the Nobel committee has a reputation for honoring writers who are often obscure in the Western world, the award to Dylan is perhaps the most unconventional choice in the history of the honor, which dates to 1901. Dylan now joins a literary pantheon that includes Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway. It's doubtful that a single one of them ever penned song lyrics.
That isn't to say that Dylan's words, written to be set to music, are not powerful. Throughout a career that has spanned more than 50 years he has earned a reputation for a masterful use of the language, writing lyrics that can stand alone -- as the Nobel committee observed -- as poetry in the English speaking tradition. Literature is built on words.
Dylan was in his early 20s when he began his career in Greenwich Village as a folk singer confronting "the establishment" with a message of musical protest. His song, "Blowin' in the Wind," became an anthem of the 1960s. Many others have become standards transcending time: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Forever Young," "Lay Lady Lay," "Mr. Tambourine Man," -- and his clarion call to a new generation, "The Times They Are a-Changin'."
The Swedish Academy notes his body of work -- a vast number of songs -- includes topics such as "the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love." As such, he is much more than a popular entertainer; he uses music and his lyrics to convey commentary on his world -- much as a novelist or critic would.
The Nobel Prize honors not merely a single work, but lifetime achievement. Dylan's words have echoed throughout the American scene since the Kennedy era, when he first was hailed as "the voice of a generation." His music has earned him accolades over the decades as he continues to add to his canon. His powerful words now bring him his highest honor.
Move over, Kipling, Camus and Yeats. The times they are a changing.