Reading between the lines

On Saturday, the Brazil Character Lab, a twitter profile that provides links to blogs, articles and news related to Brazil, started what became a fairly heated debate when it repeated what one expat had tweeted about Brazilian reading habits – namely that it’s rare to see a Brazilian reading a book in public that isn’t the bible.

I blithely quipped that they’d forgotten to mention Fifty Shades of Grey, a cheap wisecrack inspired by a recent train journey in which all four of the people who were reading on my carriage were doing so with their bonces firmly ensconced within the pages of E.L. James’s softcore porno. Ironically, I did at the time actually think to myself: “Well, at least they’re reading….and at least it’s not the bible.”

However, a short while later my timeline started draw attention to some commentators who were providing some rather more well-considered ripostes than my own. Initially, there were some Brazilians who took umbrage at what they considered to be a generalised slight upon their taste (or lack of) in literature. Counterarguments duly followed, in which it was suggested that it is not the act of seeing Brazilians read that is rare, but rather the fact that what they do read is rarely anything other than something related to a job or course – or the bible. Furthermore, the scope of public reading in Brazil was unfavourably compared to the UK and US.

My thoughts were then twofold. Firstly, I replied that I thought it unfair to compare the content and prevalence of reading in Brazil with that in the UK or US. As I’ve noted before, whilst Brazil’s economic boom has lifted millions out of poverty in the last ten years it has yet to invest as heavily in its infrastructure, including its public education system. As such, with the vast majority of Brazilian children (80% in 2010) commonly only receiving basic schooling from lowly paid / motivated teachers, it may not subsequently come as too much of a surprise that a significant proportion of the population is either completely or functionally illiterate, and thus does not acquire suitable inspiration to read either a Chekov, Orwell or Lispector before going to bed – or for the sake of this argument, whilst catching a bus.

To be fair, despite the UK’s superior educational system, I’m pretty sure most Brits probably don’t pick up on of those three before bed either.

Nevertheless, from observation alone there is no doubt that the reading of the bible in public, and in general, is far more prevalent in Brazil than in the UK – I don’t know about the US as I’ve never been there. However, given the differing religious demographics of the two countries, as well as religion’s prevalence and importance within them, is this necessarily that surprising?

My second response was to highlight that observation alone only told one side of the story. For example, on Avenidas Paulista and Brigadeiro Faria Lima in São Paulo you’ll find numerous bancas de jornal, the Brazilian equivalent of British newsagents. Whilst they don’t sell drinks or snacks like their British brothers and sisters, they instead often stock a selection of books, and amongst them I’ve seen titles by the likes of Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and George Orwell. Presumably, people buy and read them as otherwise it would make no commercial sense to stock them.

a banca de journal - the Brazilian newsagent
Banca de Jornal – The Brazilian Newsagent

And it’s not just at newstands where you’ll find books being sold in public places. At many train and / or Metro stations you’ll find book vending machines that offer a variety of books for whatever price you are willing to pay – although having said that they do only accept notes (the lowest denominator being R$2 ($1 / 60p)).

'Pay what you think it is worth'
‘Pay what you think it is worth’

Additionally, initiatives like Livro Livre, which has distributed over 50,000 free books during each of the last seven Octobers at train stations around São Paulo, show that proactive attempts are being made to promote reading within the city.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that a healthy reading culture doesn’t already exist. For example, despite retail sales in Brazil falling 0.2% in recent months, those of books and magazines have increased by 6.9%. No wonder then, that Amazon sees Brazil as one of its biggest potential markets, and since the launch of Kobo and Kindle e-readers at the end of 2012, it has become increasingly common to see commuters with them on buses and trains.

So, whilst it might be the case that reading habits in Brazil differ from somewhere like the UK, the debates around the issue probably need to be a little more nuanced than what our instincts might initially inform us. Part of the problem is that with 140 characters Twitter doesn’t really lend itself towards inspiring refined debate.