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PARATY, Brazil (Reuters) - Paulo Cavalcante rode buses for 46 hours from the dusty Brazil northeast to this coastal town for the chance to rub literary shoulders with British dramatist Tom Stoppard and other famous writers.
"This is magnificent," said the 47-year-old professor, who was selling copies of his debut book, a romance novel, to passers-by in the coastal town of Paraty. "People where I'm from don't read much because of low income and poor education."
For a few days last week, Cavalcante could rub shoulders with Stoppard, bossa nova great Carlos Lyra and U.S. satirist David Sedaris on the colonial town's cobbled streets.
Founded by "Harry Potter" publisher Liz Calder six years ago, the annual Paraty Literary Festival helped transform the town about halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo into a trendy destination and given Brazil a spot on the international literary circuit.
Brazilians, better known for their telenovelas and Samba than as readers, treat the event as a national treasure.
"It was like a rock concert," British novelist Zoe Heller said of her discussion session, which was watched by several thousand people.
Stoppard, the star turn at this year's festival, expressed astonishment at the enthusiasm of readers who lined up for five hours at a book-signing by novelist Neil Gaiman.
"Look, they're doing a fly-by for Neil," the 71-year-old joked as a replica vintage plane flew overhead.
Stories about Stoppard's chain-smoking performance at a festival news conference were posted on national newspaper Web sites within hours. Not that people needed to wait that long because this year's festival, which drew 20,000 visitors, was broadcast live online.
At least 1,000 people crammed in to hear a discussion about the meaning of bossa nova between Lyra and a music critic that touched on subjects from Brazil's military dictatorships to the music form's possible links with 19th century Brazilian author Machado de Assis, who was the theme for this year's gathering.
Few literary festivals can match the exotic and sometimes surreal setting of Paraty, a former slave trading port. A transvestite on stilts teetered along a street on Friday night, mingling with bare-chested Brazilian men and a few foreign tourists exploring the many "cachacarias" -- stores where bottles of the cachaca spirit are stacked to the ceiling.
Despite the feverish atmosphere at the festival, Brazil is hardly a nation of avid readers.
A study by the IBOPE research institute released this year found that 45 percent of Brazilians hadn't read a book in the past three months. Nineteen percent of books were owned by 1 percent of the population. Illiteracy, a lack of interest, high book prices and a lack of libraries in many areas are cited as disincentives to reading.
"Our culture is more about music, it's not really used to literature," said Ryana Gabech, 23, who was going from bar to bar selling her new poetry book.
Still, the reading population has grown rapidly in recent years, coinciding with an economic boom. The study found that 66.5 million Brazilians had read a book in the past three months, compared with 26 million in 2000.
Flavio Moura, the event's program director, said the average print run for a novel in Brazil was just 2,000. Most writers have to turn to other trades like journalism to make a living, he said.
"Other smaller festivals in other parts of the country are starting up -- this is a great sign," he said.
Ellison Assis, 65, a former health worker who came to Paraty in the 1960s to help rid it of malaria, said the festival had inspired him to try his hand at writing. He is planning a book of memoirs.
"Before the festival, there was nothing for intellectuals here," he said. "I've been stimulated by all these people discussing literature."
Editing by Alan Elsner