This Illiterate Brazilian’s Home Speaks Volumes

Times Staff Writer

Carlos Leite can barely read a word, but books revolutionized his life.

Two years ago, he was doing construction work for a man who was about to toss out six thick, red encyclopedias. Leite asked whether he could have them instead. Thus a dream was born.

Within days, he hit the pavement, knocking on doors, begging people for more unwanted books. No contribution was too small, too big or too arcane. Skeptical members of Leite’s cycling club were dragooned into helping him collect donations.


His collection quickly multiplied. The original six volumes turned into 100, then 1,000. Soon, his humble home was bursting with 5,000 books of all types -- worn classics, chemistry textbooks, dog-eared thrillers.

To Leite, though, nearly all the books are mysteries. Born into a poor family, he dropped out of school after third grade and, at 51, is practically illiterate.

But books, he knows, are the gateway to a life of greater possibility and more promise than his own. It might be too late for me, a working man, he reasoned, but not for others.

So bloomed the passion that has consumed Leite’s free time over the last two years: transforming his home into a public library, free and open to all in this poverty-stricken neighborhood outside Rio de Janeiro. The streets here are unpaved and unweeded, daily life is a struggle and even a single book is an enormous luxury that can cost up to half a week’s wages.

To visit Leite’s abode now is to see kids doing homework in what used to be his bedroom. Adults browse titles in what was once the foyer. Rainbows of donated paperbacks and hardcovers on almost every imaginable subject, some in crisp condition, others falling apart, cover every available bit of wall space, jammed together so tightly that a knife would have trouble passing between them.

Leite’s collection now stands at an astonishing 10,000 volumes, many still packed in boxes or piled in corners waiting to be sorted and shelved. Space is at such a premium that Leite and his companion, Maria da Penha, have had to move into a back alcove with all their belongings, which aren’t much.

“This is the only space we have to sleep. Please don’t mind that it looks so poor,” he told a visitor apologetically as he gingerly picked his way past a precariously leaning wardrobe and a low-slung bed. “The books kicked us out. If we’re not careful, the books will kick us out of the back room too.”

The house has been christened, as the big, hand-painted sign on the roof proudly announces, the Community Library, 18th Street. On busy afternoons, it’s standing room only. Patrons vie for one of the mismatched chairs, which scrape along a floor lined with discarded tiles that Leite and his friends scrounged.

Da Penha, 54, is the den mother, shushing noisy patrons with the severe expression mastered by all good librarians. Like Leite, she is basically illiterate -- but aware of the riches crowding her walls, which sometimes invade her sleep.

“I dream that I’m reading them,” she said.

What she and Leite have managed to do is all the more remarkable given the daunting hurdles to fostering reading skills and habits in Latin America’s largest country. Illiteracy, poverty and the seduction of modern entertainment have made Brazil a country with one of the lowest levels of book-reading in the world. The average American reads five books a year, as does the average Briton. In literary-minded France, that number rises to seven. In Brazil, it’s fewer than two.

Brazilians are handicapped by lack of access. Government officials say that nearly 1,000 of the country’s 5,500 municipalities have no public library. Buying a book is even less of an option.

As with so many problems here, the lack of access to books reflects and reinforces the vast disparity of wealth that has made Brazil one of the most unequal societies on Earth. Bookstores tend to be clustered in well-off areas like Rio’s Zona Sul, or south zone, home to the storied Copacabana and Ipanema beaches; in the city’s sprawling northern precincts where millions live, many in slums of unspeakable squalor, bookstores are virtually unknown.

A study in 2001 estimated that 16% of the population owns nearly 75% of all the books in Brazil -- hardly surprising considering that a standard paperback routinely sells for about $15, or one-eighth of the minimum monthly salary.

Moreover, illiteracy remains high; 16 million Brazilians older than 15 cannot read or write.

Yet limited access and stubborn illiteracy levels are not the whole story in Brazil, land of sun, samba and soccer.

“There’s just not the habit of reading,” said Cristina Fernandes Warth, vice president of the Brazilian Editors League. “And now there’s competition with other things: cellphones, Internet, DVDs. Let’s say there’s a shop where there’s a book and a CD of the same price. It’s the CD that will probably be bought.”

The Brazilian government has launched a series of initiatives to improve the situation, including a reduction in taxes on books, a “Hungry for Books” reading drive and a campaign to establish public libraries in all towns and cities.

Leite couldn’t wait.

“Those of us who grew up here, we know what the needs of the community are,” he said. “I stopped and thought, ‘Wait a minute. There’s not a single library. The schools have libraries, but there’s no public library.’ So I said, ‘Let’s make this dream come true.’ ”

When he asked members of his small bicycling group to help him collect used books, “they all thought I was a little crazy,” he said.

But they humored him, and the nameless cycling club got a moniker: “The Madmen of Sao Goncalo.” Or so they seemed at first to the neighbors whose doors they knocked on.

“Some people thought, ‘You must be joking. Here in this community, people ask for clothes, but to ask for books!’ ” said Ronaldo Pena, 48, one of the cyclists.

They inaugurated the library on March 20, 2004, with 100 volumes, most of them literary and historical treatises donated by someone Pena knew. Since then, the group has been amassing books at a feverish pace. Many come from rich Brazilians in whose homes they work as cleaners, handymen and the like.

Because everything is by donation, the collection is eclectic and quixotic, but impressive in scope: from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Umberto Eco to political theorist Antonio Gramsci, William Faulkner to James Joyce, not to mention textbooks and reference works. There’s no Dewey decimal system, or even strict alphabetical order; books are simply grouped by subject.

“All the material you need is here,” said Gabriele Sthefanine Silva Azeveda, a seventh-grader who was busy one recent afternoon copying down information about Central America from an encyclopedia. The nearest public library is 20 minutes away by car -- not that many residents here own cars -- and her school library is often of little use.

“It has fewer books than here,” she said.

Word has spread enough that donations pour in by post, including works by the late Brazilian poet Mario Quintana, whose granddaughter heard about the home library and sent Leite some volumes.

A television station gave the library a computer so that it could maintain a proper inventory, but no one has had time to catalog anything yet.

It’s a challenge just to keep the library open Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and often later when there’s special need: a report due, a test the next day.

“There’s a lot of demand,” Leite said. “We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, psychologists coming in to do research.”

He depends on Da Penha and his friends to staff the library, all of them unpaid. Leite continues to do construction and maintenance work to try to meet the mounting bills. How do you run a library without overhead lights? Or fans to keep patrons cool and books from going moldy on those hot tropical afternoons? Or tape and glue to repair broken spines and torn pages?

Not a single penny has come from official sources -- “not from the politicians, not from the government,” said Da Penha, who is on medical leave from her job as a cleaning lady at a local school.

“What’s here is what we’ve done ourselves,” she said. “We’ve sacrificed a lot to help the people here. But it’s a sacrifice of love.”