On the cobbled streets running alongside one bank of Parati's charming estuary, US author Paul Auster strides through the crowds like a rock star. Nearby, Booker Prize winners Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, and Ian McEwan sign autographs for packs of fans. And across the stone bridge that spans the Pereque-acu River, bestselling Brazilian author Luiz Fernando Verissimo overcomes his famous shyness to pose for pictures with admirers.
Walking around this charming colonial town and seeing the frenzy, it would be natural to assume that Brazil was a hotbed of world literature, an Ireland of the tropics or a Russia with magical realism. The second annual Parati International Literary Festival (FLIP), held last month, brought 12,000 visitors from around the world to hear authors read from their works and debate "speculative fiction," "novels within novels," and "social exclusion: fact and fiction."
The success, however, was an unlikely one. Brazil may have produced Machado de Assis, perhaps the most original novelist to come from South America; and Paulo Coelho, the mystical storyteller esteemed from Boston to Baghdad. But this is a country in which almost half of adults own fewer than 10 books, according to the Brazilian Chamber of Books.
"Though few people read books here, Brazil is big, and so in absolute terms that is a lot of people," says Mauro Munhoz, a festival organizer. "FLIP was a success."
Outside the private parties and book launches, literate environments are hard to come by in a country where soccer stars and musicians are much more revered than wordsmiths. Although Brazil boasts the world's eighth-largest publishing industry, the market is limited because 38 percent of Brazilians are functionally illiterate and many of those who can read cannot afford to spend on a book what it costs to feed a family for week. …