Dylan Scholarship

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In other contexts it’s called “scholarship.”” My friend Rusty posted that yesterday in relation to my thoughts on SearchingForAGem.com, the website that breaks down the intricate minutia of Dylan’s recordings in various contexts. Rusty was drawing a distinction between data collection and analysis, and how that analysis necessarily stems from data collection. This segued nicely with a discussion I was having yesterday about a couple of projects that I am working on.

In my day job, as professor of English at the University of Calgary, I write not about popular music but about comic books. My next book is now complete and will be out from Rutgers University Press in about a year (academic publishing schedules being what they are). A post-doctoral fellow that I am supervising and I were discussing the various ways that comics scholarship circulates among comics scholars, and the tendency of some comics scholars to ignore most of the work done in the field, or to read very selectively based on a narrow set of interests so that, for example, scholars interested in superhero comics might not read a book about European comics or manga, and vice versa. This is, of course, not a problem specific to comics. Shakespearians may not read much about Joyce, and Joyceans may not read much about Austen. There’s a lot of scholarship out there, and no one can keep up with it all.

Since my next book is about Archie Comics, we were wondering if it will be read by people who haven’t read Archie Comics. It is certainly designed to be – indeed, that is probably the primary audience. My post-doc asked what I hoped to accomplish with the book, and I noted that it has an implicit critique of the standard methods of doing scholarly work on comics – but that the critique is subtle about that in that it demonstrates its argument rather than proclaiming a new way of doing things. I’m not sure that all of the nuances will be picked up, but we’ll see. When he asked me what that implicit critique was, I suggested that it is (at least in part) an argument for data collection. My book examines eight years of Archie Comics, but to do that I read almost one thousand issues of Archie as the way to begin, because, to my mind, scholarship begins from the broadest possible base of understanding. That is the foundation. I am always struck when I read an article about a comic (or anything, really) and it appears to me that the author is unaware of related materials. I recently spoke to a student who is writing on a well-known mid-century American novel and he explained his approach. I mused that there was a great example of what he was talking about in another novel by the same writer, about five years after the novel he was considered. The student admitted “I haven’t read that”. It baffled me that a PhD student might not have read the five or six significant works by the subjects of one of his chapters. It baffled me that he wouldn’t have read everything, in fact.

To write a book about Archie in the 1960s I read all of the stories – not just the good ones, and not just the ones I thought I would write about, and not just the 1960s material but well into the 1970s and back into the 1940s. How could one do otherwise? This blog is not a scholarly project (yet), but it occurs to me that the same principle has to apply. To study Dylan for a year means listening to things you might not want to listen to (ie. the next month). You don’t pick and choose when you seek to understand, you dive right in and try to get a sense of the whole terrain before digging down. I’ve mentioned that I might want to write something formal about “Tangled Up in Blue”. I just looked at some existing scholarship on that song – and a lot of it deals with the lyrical differences between the version on Blood on the Tracks and Real Live. To me, that would just be scratching the surface. I’m not saying that it is necessary to hear all 1,377 versions of the song that Dylan has played live (imagine that!), but a sample size of two seems somewhat ridiculous to me.

According to the MLA database, there are 258 peer-refereed articles written about Dylan (that number will be low since the MLA database doesn’t cover many non-MLA fields). If I ever do decide to do something scholarly with Dylan, I’ll spend all of 2015 blogging those – one article per day for the entire year. After that, and only after that, I might be able to write something.

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