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Literate culture in Brazil the Colony

Researcher's work contributes towards the history of reading

And I went to see the angel, telling him to give me the book. And he said to me: Take the book, and devour it: and it will make your belly bitter, but your mouth will be as sweet as honey…

Let the readers know that books are also to be eaten, as the above excerpt says, taken from the Apocalypse of Saint John. The importance given to the reading of the sacred text stands shoulder to shoulder with a proper assimilation of the word of God and the predestination of the one chosen to announce the divine judges. So you have to read the book well, and you have to give the book to chosen people.

The social system crosses through and contaminates the whole process of literate communication, even from the nature of language itself, to the interpretation and rebuttal of the readers in a given epoch, in given politico-economic conditions, under given ideological limitations. By reading, an individual activates his place in society, his mode of life, his internal library, his relations with others, the values of his community. And it is for this reason that there is the control exercised by society over the act of reading, manifested in several ways. The spaces where books circulate by themselves determine a sort of exclusion.

Os Caminhos dos Livros sketched by Márcia Abreu put the reader before some surprising research material. The map to be followed has as its starting point, as the author herself tells us, a suspicion. Take two references: the texts by travelers complaining that there were no readers here, that there were no books circulating in the first few centuries of colonial Brazil, and the thousands of requests for authorization for sending out printed matter to be found in the Catalog for the examination of books to leave the kingdom with Brazil as their destination. “If those people did not read, why did they so assiduously seek the censors so as to get permission to have a few books near to them?”, is the question posed by the research, and which serves as a guide to the reader along a path paved with research into sources and a strict survey of the theoretical landmarks, with an agreeable and fluent language.

The first part ? O Trânsito das Letras [The Transit of Literature] ? leads us to the knowledge of the control with the “passes” for books from Europe to Brazil and of the ways of the censorship. The author devotes herself, next, to a survey of the works applied for and submitted to Portuguese censorship between 1769 and 1807 that were to come to Rio.

The conclusion that one reaches, in the opposite direction to what is affirmed in books about the cultural poverty of Brazil the Colony, is that the inhabitants of Rio at the end of the 18th century and first few decades of the 19th were not excluded from the universe of belles-lettres. But who were these readers? One then passes over the lists of books to be found in the inventories and the books of accounts of bookshops, through the libraries of the clergy and even through lists of informal salesmen and through such unexpected places as warehouses and pharmacies.

The second part of the book ? Julgar e Sentir [Judging and Feeling] ? puts the reader on the route of how one used to read in those days, through texts that used to postulate a precept, indications about the correct manner of reading, and about what was supposed to be a good book, with the objective of outlining the profile of this reader at such a distance away in time. This is how one reaches the reader in Rio of the period, who would often read rebelling against the list of “recommendations”, in that he would dedicate himself to novels. Poring over what the dweller in Rio used to read takes us to the last chapter of the book, A Leitura do Romance [The Reading of Novels], with a right to the arguments for and against the genre and to the study of the processes of seducing the reader.

This delicious journey along the paths of books offered by the brilliant text of Márcia Abreu, besides making available abundant material for research, makes an extraordinary contribution to the history of reading and of the mechanism of circulation, providing a new vision of literate culture in Brazil the Colony.

Maria Zilda Ferreira Cury is a professor of the Theory of Literature at UFMG, where she coordinates the Postgraduate Program in Literary Studies.

Os Caminhos dos Livros [The Ways of Books]
Márcia Abreu
Mercado de Letras/ FAPESP/ALB
384 pages
R$ 42.00