The best books about Bob Dylan.

John Dickerson’s Dylan Bookshelf

John Dickerson’s Dylan Bookshelf

Arts has moved! You can find new stories here.
Slate Plus
Your all-access pass
May 8 2014 2:16 PM

He’s Very Well Read It’s Well Known

Everything John Dickerson thinks you should read if you really want to understand Bob Dylan.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky.

Illustration by Chip Zdarsky

When Dan Kois asked me to review David Kinney’s fascinating book The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob for the Slate Book Review, I took a look at the Dylan section of my bookshelves and wondered how different I was from the Bob obsessives Kinney profiles. Over the years I have collected a lot of Dylan reading material, including picture books and fan magazines and pamphlets. I owned a set list from a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion for three seconds before my friend took it. Here are some, though not all, of the Dylan books on my shelf:

John's bookshelves.
John's bookshelves.

Courtesy of John Dickerson

By Dylan’s Hand

I like Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001 better than the online version because you can write in the margins. Alas, my original copy from my early days of fandom (Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985) was stolen so I can’t reflect on what my 16-year-old self thought about things. I have a half-dozen songbooks, but if you want a big collection, I prefer the arrangements in The Songs of Bob Dylan: From 1966 Through 1975 to the ones in The Definitive Dylan SongbookTarantula, Dylan’s 1966 book of stream-of-consciousness prose poetry, is fun and an answer to what happens when you put Bob Dylan, on amphetamines, in front of a typewriter, but I’m too dimwitted to have found it worth rereading. It is a nice window into that period where he was his most manic and nearly flying off the cliff. Chronicles, Dylan’s autobiography, is a delight to read. It’s really well written. Some of it might even be true. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

Dylan by Others:

Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks. I once had a chance to talk Dylan over breakfast with Ricks, the great English literature scholar, so I’m biased perhaps, but I loved this book’s take on Dylan’s lyrics. It also introduced me to lots of other great poetry.

Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan by Michael Gray. A meticulous tour through Dylan’s lyrics with lots of great context.

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Some of the best Dylan criticism. Not every entry a gem but some of my copy is so marked up it looks like a ransom note. 

Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin. I loved this 1991 biography. It was updated 10 years later. Heylin has written quite a lot about Dylan and almost has his own section on my shelf—everything from biography to a meticulous detailing of Dylan recording sessions and tours. He has a strong ego, but he’s a good provocative read. 

No Direction Home by Robert Shelton. This is the straight-ahead Dylan bio by the New York Times critic who first wrote about Dylan for the paper. It’s not flashy, but it was the first Dylan book I read and a good place to start. 

Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe. The essay “The Cawing, Derisive Voice” at the start of this thin volume is great. 

The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein. This has a great account of Dylan’s rebirth later in his career and puts it in perspective with 50 years of Dylan’s risk-taking.

Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu. A nicely told story of the early Dylan years and the culture that surrounded his arrival on the Greenwich Village scene.