Dylan rocked his world! A woman shook his resolve!

The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966
Author: Robert Hudson
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (www.eerdmans.com)
Pages: 249

Initially, I may have been put off by the cover of The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 by Robert Hudson. The image of a sullen monk with a vinyl record for a halo behind an angular and woolly-haired Bob Dylan did not attract me. Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about Merton, whose books I regularly passed by. Dylan, on the other hand, I knew more about, but had never read a book about him.

I passed on this odd pairing in favor of Reading Paul with the Reformers by Stephen J. Chester, which comes from the same publisher. It is excellent but geared toward academics. It gets technical; a necessary development considering the topics, but it makes for challenging reading.

After finishing it, I was about to get a second chance. The editor of this publication asked if I wanted to review the aforementioned. Why not? I had contemplated reading, Chronicles, Dylan’s story in his own words, which I still might do. This could be a bridge to that work.

Don’t be like me and let the seeming incongruity between the two main subjects deter you. The connections are real. This is scholarly, just like the other Eerdmans’ volume, but much easier to read. To be fair, they are different types of writing. The one is concerned with doctrine and theology whereas this is rich in narrative. Hudson writes with astonishing detail. I am there, observing events as they unfold.

And what a pivotal time that was! Beatles ‘66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner covers the same period. Two recent books covering monumental events. No doubt I will enjoy reading the Turner book if I get the chance.

I’m not sure what people mean when they say writing is lyrical, but I suspect that this approaches it. The author makes each setting elegant. The prose has a lovely flow. If I am to summarize it, perhaps I could give no higher tribute than to say, “I hear music.” This is the memorable line from the movie Green Card. It’s not Dylan that I hear, though this made me want to listen to more of his early work. My heart sings because I’m reading truthful accounts of wrestling with issues that matter.

To be clear, the book is more about Merton than Dylan, but readers get to see Dylan through the real influence that he had on Merton. Thankfully, the author is attune to the spiritual in both of their lives, something that may not be as prominent in the writings of others.

As a writer, I was fascinated to learn of Merton’s development and struggles in becoming a prolific author. This deftly chronicles his works from first to last, and it’s fascinating.

Being single, I was intrigued to read about his emotional affair. It nearly tore him apart! He has this deep longing to be alone with God. On the other hand, he feels the need to be one with others. He feels a deep connection with a woman. How does he resolve his dream of being hermit with finding the love of his life?

You might describe his initial feelings through the Carole King song:

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you’re around

Dylan rocked his world! A woman shook his resolve!

If it was a test of his calling; he felt like he may have failed. Perhaps it appears odd to those who cannot comprehend his reasoning, but Merton came to the conclusion that he could be most one with others when he was alone. God could most unite him to the world in his vocation as a hermit.

A borrowed record player, and Dylan’s earliest albums, were prophetic. They inspired him. Here was someone that articulated not only what he felt but also many others. He became an admirer, even playing some of these records for visitors.

Sadly, he was never able to meet with this fellow seer, but he did get to meet and know a contemporary, Joan Baez. Those details are included along with bits about other famous individuals who make the pilgrimage to his hermitage.

This is not a biography, but it’s hard to imagine a more interesting introduction to Merton. I wasn’t disappointed by what I learned of Dylan. It is a bridge to exploring the writings related to each of them, and in the case of Dylan, listening from a new perspective.

I hear music when I read these words. It’s a little like what the ancients call the song of the Lord. I sense a presence, a joy. It animates my heart. To think, I almost missed reading such well told stories from the mistaken notion that this must be rather fanciful. I would read this again. It’s a keeper; a worthy addition for anyone interested in one or the other.

Michael Dalton