Did Bob Dylan Plagiarize His Nobel Prize Lecture From SparkNotes?
Moby-Dick is a long book—typically around 500-700 pages, depending on the edition you buy. It's hard to blame anyone who doesn't feel like dedicating that much time to a guy obsessed with a fish. That's why kids for generations have been using study aids like SparkNotes to get the gist of the story while not actually reading the book.
As Slate's Andrea Pitzer uncovered, Bob Dylan might be among those lazy students. Pitzer noticed that during Dylan's recorded lecture for his Nobel Prize for Literature, he said a "Quaker pacifist priest" tells Flask, the third mate, "Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness." That line, however, doesn't exist in Herman Melville's novel. It does exist in SparkNotes, though, which describes the character as "someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness."
Weird, right? But it could just be a coincidence. Surely people will have similar interpretations of the book. So Pitzer decided to compare Dylan's Nobel Lecture to SparkNotes. Here are a handful of similarities she found:
Dylan: "Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn't saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection."
SparkNotes: "Tashtego…has died and been reborn, and any extra days of his life are a gift. His rebirth also parodies religious images of resurrection. Tashtego is 'delivered' from death not by Christ but by a fellow man—a non-Christian at that."
Dylan: "Finally, Ahab spots Moby … Boats are lowered…Moby attacks Ahab's boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab's boat again."
SparkNotes: "Ahab finally sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats are launched, and Moby Dick attacks Ahab's harpoon boat, destroying it. The next day, Moby Dick is sighted again, and the boats are lowered once more…Moby Dick again attacks Ahab's boat."
Pitzer says she found at least 20 instances of similar lines in Dylan's lecture, which you can read in full on Slate. As she points out, Dylan has been accused of plagiarism before; his 2001 album Love and Theft allegedly pulled from Junichi Saga's book Confessions of a Yakuza and Henry Timrod's Civil War poetry.
In response to those accusations, Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2012 that "I'm working within my art form," he said. "It's that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It's called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it."
If it's true, can you really blame him? He's 76, he's touring the country, and he's supposed to re-read a book he could have first read decades ago? Maybe he had an intern write it? He didn't even want the damn award anyway. Maybe this was his subtle way of showing his apathy toward the honor. But, on the other hand, this is a lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, so maybe it's important to actually read the literature this time—or at least put the SparkNotes in your own words.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.