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Western culture has developed a lot of techniques for probing an artist's soul. We publish artists' journals, notebooks and letters; write interpretive biographies and other forms of critical exegesis; invite them to give talks and make presentations, interview them.

Occasionally, an artist so fascinates the public taste as to inspire a whole necklace of these investigative baubles. When that happens, you get something like Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, a book-length collection of 31 interviews spanning 46 years, edited by Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott.

Dylan is the best and worst subject for this kind of treatment, and for the same reasons. He is first and foremost a performer, and he tends to treat interviews as performances. He is famously guarded, and he changes his masks more often than any American literary figure since Ezra Pound. So the interviews tend to be entertaining, varied and mystifying, but ultimately unreliable and often more revealing of the interviewer.

Still, with Cott's chronological progression and the absence of introductory materials or other intrusions, we at least have the appearance of getting pure Dylan, in his own words, even if he warns us in a fascinating 1978 interview with Cott that he's wearing a transparent mask with other masks underneath.

The interviews range from the ridiculous - self-proclaimed ''Dylanologist'' A.J. Weberman's addled duel with the songwriter - to the sublime - playwright Sam Shepard's imagined dialogue about angels, artists and sudden death. The latter is worth the price of the whole book.

Mostly, Cott gives us journalism, pieces occasioned by an event, usually a new record release or concert tour. Thus we get to travel through the singer's life (he vigorously and consistently rejects the notion of a ''career''), checking in with him at many high points.

Happily, the discomfort he felt in the '60s with being a ''protest singer'' and a ''spokesman for his generation'' fades in time, so that in the later interviews, he's much more relaxed and loquacious. That doesn't mean he makes it easy. As Paul Zollo notes as late as 1991, ''Dylan's answers were often more enigmatic than my questions, and like his songs, they offer a lot to think about while not necessarily revealing much about the man.''

Eight years later, Dylan acknowledges to Jon Pareles of The New York Times, ''I'm inconsistent, even to myself.'' Still, the cumulative effect reveals a serious musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of his forebears, constantly grasping for intellectual integrity, unable to live anywhere but the present, and always uncomfortable with his role as a poet, a prophet or even a songwriter. ''Songs don't need words,'' proclaims the man who, by his estimation, has written lyrics for 700 to 800 of them.

Although Dylan frequently voices his preference for performing live vs. making records, some of the most poignant moments in the book are interviews conducted during recording sessions. Music history is lucky that a writer as perceptive as Nat Hentoff was present during the all-night session in 1964 when ''Another Side of Bob Dylan'' was recorded. Hentoff's growing realization that he was seeing an artist who had a lot more going on than anyone realized was recounted for the New Yorker and preserved for the ages.

And Mikal Gilmore's wide-ranging 1986 interview for Rolling Stone captures the mature musician, pausing in the midst of an international concert tour to record ''Knocked Out Loaded.'' It's a long, exhausting session with Dylan being interviewed during breaks between takes, overdubs and pauses in the record-making process.

When it's finally over, Dylan sits down one last time with Gilmore and, without being asked, volunteers, ''Sometimes I think about people like T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters - these people who played into their 60s. If I'm here at 80, I'll be doing the same thing. This is all I want to do - it's all I can do.''

edited by Jonathan Cott,

Wenner Books, $23.95