Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, published last year, is not so much a memoir or autobiography, but rather a series of snapshots, each drenched in cultural references, that together create a approximation of Mr. Zimmerman’s character. One of those snapshots gives us Dylan living in an apartment in Greenwich Village owned by a mysterious autodidact named Ray. It’s 1960, Dylan is new to New York, and unknown to the burgeoning folk scene in New York. He hasn’t yet written his first song, but he knows about Joseph Smith and the Adam-God theory.
Ray’s library, among other things, makes an enormous impression on Dylan, and all these years later he recounts his encounter with the great literature of the world, including an unidentified Joseph Smith book:
“Up until this time I’d been raised in a cultural spectrum that had left my mind black with soot. Brando. James Dean. Milton Berle. Marilyn Monroe. Lucy. Earl Warren and Khruschev, Castro. Little Rock and Peyton Place. Tenessee Williams and Joe DiMaggio. J. Edgar Hoover and Westinghouse. The Nelsons. Holiday Inns and hot-rod Chevys. Mickey Spillane and Joe McCarthy. Levittown.
“Standing in this room [Ray’s library] you could take it all for a joke. There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General — a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.
“There were novels by Gogol and Balzac, Maupassant, Hugo and Dickens. I usually opened up some book to the middle, read a few pages and if I liked it went back to the beginning. * * * A lot of these books were too big to read, like giant shoes fitted for large-footed people. I read the poetry books, mostly. Byron and Shelley and Longfellow and Poe. I memorized Poe’s poem “The Bells” and strummed it to a melody on my guitar. There was a book there on Joseph Smith, the authentic American prophet who identifies himself with Enoch in the Bible and says that Adam was the first man-god. This stuff pales in comparison to Thucydides, too. The books make the room vibrate in a nauseating and forceful way. The words of “La Vita Solitaria” by Leopardi seemed to come out of the trunk of a tree, hopeless, uncrushable sentiments.”
I wonder what book it was. Any guesses?