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NEW ENGLAND LITERARY NEWS NINA MACLAUGHLIN

Virgil, Homer, and Dylan; pop-up bookstore in Rockport; recalling Combat Zone

Diana Davies/Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections/Smithsonian Institution

By Nina MacLaughlin Globe Correspondent 

Virgil. Homer. Dylan?

Every four years, classics professor Richard F. Thomas offers a class on Bob Dylan to Harvard freshman. It’s a popular seminar, and the syllabus follows the songwriter’s twists and turns, from his early folkie days to his Nobel Prize in literature last year, as well as the themes Dylan swims in: war, social justice, faith, love, death.

Thomas’s new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters’’ (Dey Street), places Dylan in a classical context, tracing his influences to ancient Greece and Rome and making the case as to why Dylan should occupy the same vaunted place in the canon as Ovid, Catullus, Virgil, and Homer. Like those poets, Dylan “is incapable of being contained by time or place,” Thomas writes.

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Thomas also cites a number of places where Dylan echoes lines from translations of Ovid and Homer, but it shouldn’t be understood as plagiarism the way it would be in journalism or academia. “Poets don’t credit; they just steal and refashion,” Thomas says over the phone from Cleveland where he attended a launch event for the book at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When Dylan writes in the Homeric voice, Thomas says, he’s less borrowing from the narrative and more positioning himself as a kind of Odysseus, a man on constant tour, the wily maker of his fate. It’s likely Dylan would appreciate this: He was, after all, a member of the Latin club at Hibbing High School in his native Minnesota.

Pop-up bookstore in Rockport

Toad Hall Books, an independent bookstore on the North Shore for over 30 years, closed this year after struggling financially in the seasonal economy of Rockport. HugoBooks, which runs four stores north of Boston, including the Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, Cabot Street Books in Beverly, the Andover Bookstore, and the Book Rack in Newburyport, is testing the waters there with a holiday pop-up store that will be open daily through Christmas. John Hugo, head of the local chain, said in a telephone interview that if the holiday business at Rockport Books is comparable to that of his other stores, “I’d be happy to stay.” With a town like Rockport, he noted, a good summer season isn’t enough to sustain a shop. There has to be a strong holiday stretch as well, “and then in the shoulder seasons you just kind of hang on. But you know if people aren’t coming out in December, you know they’re not going to come out in February.”

Story of the Combat Zone

In an attempt to corral the spread of adult-entertainment businesses in the 1970s, the city designated an area along Washington Street as the district for such enterprises. Dubbed the Combat Zone, the more than five-and-a-half acre neighborhood lives on in legend and memory. In her new book “Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood’’ (Union Park), Stephanie Schorow details the rise and fall of this storied, if seedy area. What’s now a stretch of sleek condos, tony restaurants, and bubble-tea shops was once a “queasy oasis of sex shops and strip clubs in the heart of the city,” Schorow writes in this history of a bold social experiment in urban development. Schorow, who’s written about a half a dozen books on various aspects of Boston’s past (boozing, the Brink’s robbers, and the Cocoanut Grove fire, among others) writes smart, fast prose, and we come to know the people of the Combat Zone, the strippers, the cops, the prostitutes, the nun-turned-lawyer who represented pornographic bookstores in this lively portrait.

Coming out

“Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy’’ by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian (Henry Holt)

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“Kith’’ by Divya Victor (Fence)

“Twist’’ by Harkaitz Cano, translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo (Archipelago)

Pick of the week

Phil Clingenpeel at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vt., recommends “How To Be Drawn’’ by Terrance Hayes (Penguin): “Hayes’s poetic voice is a vital part of my poetry intake. Meaning-making, music-making, whatever poetry is, whatever happens to make a collection of words glimmer from the page to detonate in the mind, Hayes does this repeatedly. A new collection from Hayes is the perfect jump-start for readers who need a poetry kick.”


Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.