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Brazil's foremost book keeper.

IN 1747 LUIZ ANTONIO ROSADA DA CUNHA published a book that described the arrival in Brazil of a Roman Catholic bishop. This innocuous and otherwise forgettable tome turned out to be a milestone, because at that particular time, and throughout the first three centuries of Brazil's history, the Portuguese crown prohibited the operation of printing presses in this giant colony.

Relacao da Entrada Que Fez D.F. Antonio do Desterro Malhevro was composed on a clandestine press and was the first book ever published in Brazil. The authorities immediately suppressed its distribution, seized the press and expelled its owner from the country. It was not until May 13, 1808, after the Portuguese royal family had fled from Lisbon to escape Napoleon's invading army and had installed itself in Rio de Janeiro, that the first press lawfully arrived in Brazil and the first lawfully published text--a series of reports issued by the royal court--saw the light of day.

Today there are perhaps fewer than ten extant copies of Relacao da Entrada and only three remaining copies of the 1808 document. One of the former and two of the latter rest on shelves in the remarkable library of Jose E. Mindlin, a 78-year-old Sao Paulo industrialist and bibliophile who has painstakenly assembled one of the best and most extensive collections of rare books in the Hemisphere.

One would not expect to find this treasure trove in the residential neighborhood of Brooklin, which was named after but in no way resembles New York City's second most famous borough. Several miles removed from the bustle of downtown Sao Paulo, Brooklin nestles peacefully and inobtrusively within easy reach of the Congonhas Airport and the chic Morumbi Shopping Center. In a modest, wall-enclosed compound on a quiet side street, Mindlin's library of nearly 25,000 volumes gives Brooklin its claim to fame, albeit within a limited circle of cognoscente.

The collection is so large that it occupies several locations: the living-room of Mindlin's residence; two adjacent structures designed and built by one of his nephews who is an architect; and the rented second floor of a house across the street, where his wife Guita pursues her hobby--the restoration of old books. The first annex, constructed in 1965, is just above ground level, while the second, completed in 1985, is an underground cement bunker that effectively utilizes indirect lighting. In both there are dehumidifiers, air-heating devices specially designed to protect the books from fungii, and thermometers that carefully monitor changes in the temperature.

The gentle, soft-spoken Mindlin has devoted a lifetime to the printed word. His passion for collecting books began at the age of 13. Not wanting to ask his father for money to buy anything but school books, he found an ingenious way around this self-imposed barrier. "I would visit second-hand bookstores in Sao Paulo almost every afternoon," he explained, "and I verified to myself that every bookseller lived in his own burrow, unaware of what the others were doing." He discovered that one of them might be selling a book at one price while another charged ten times as much. For Dr. Mindlin, this was "the map to the mine." He would buy the lower-priced book and take it to the bookseller who was selling the same book at the higher price. He would then tell that bookseller: "I don't want money for this book, I just want you to sell it for me. If you do, keep your commission and give me a credit for the rest, and I'll spend it on books." In that way he established credit at several of the used bookstores in Sao Paulo.

This was the genesis of the Mindlin collection. Its first focus was upon rare books dealing with Brazil. These now represent about half of the library, and embrace not only history but also travel, literature and social studies. Over the years, Mindlin has acquired all the important sixteenth-century books about his homeland. Subsequently, he expanded the library to include other interests, including French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish literature, art books and books that themselves qualify as art. "A book may not be important from the literary standpoint, but from the graphic standpoint it may be a work of art," remarked Mindlin. To illustrate this he refers to a publication dating back to 1499, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Dream of Poliphili). "The text is uninteresting, but the layout, illustration and printing are outstanding. It took me forty years to get it. It's one of the loveliest books of all time."

One of the features of Mindlin's library is his extensive collection of editions of Os Lusiadas, the epic poem composed by the sixteenth-century Portuguese, Luis de Camaes, to commemorate the heroic feats of his compatriot, the explorer Vasco de Gama. "Fortunately, in school I read only excerpts, and I wasn't forced to make the sort of painstaking logical analysis of the poem that turns so many people away from Camaes," he recalls with a wry grin. He has about one hundred different editions in various languages, including the first (1572), and the second, a Japanese translation, and a French edition referring to the poet as one of the foremost "Spanish" writers.

Such curiosities are highly prized among book collectors, and Mindlin's library contains a number of them. For example, one of his most highly prized items is an illustrated first edition, published in 1488, of the verses of Petrarch, the Italian lyric poet. But perhaps even more interesting is a 1533 edition of the sonnets of Petrarch. One of the poems displeased the Pope, who ordered its suppression. In some of the books the page on which the offending verses appeared was torn out, while in others, they were covered by China ink. Mindlin has one of the latter. Over the centuries the ink has become transparent, so that it is now possible to read the censored sonnet.

Annotations can also increase the value of books and other documents. Mindlin has several copies of Brazil and the Brazilians, a travel book written by two American clergymen. The first edition, which appeared in 1857, lists the authors as Daniel P. Kidder and James C. Fletcher. Mindlin's copy bears an autographed inscription by Fletcher, identifying himself as the "primary author." Fletcher must have made his feelings known to the publisher, because in subsequent editions of the book his name precedes Kidder's on the covers and title pages.

Mindlin has also acquired 29 notebooks containing a diary written by the Countess do Barral, the tutor of the Emperor Dom Pedro II's children and in all likelihood the monarch's paramour. At one point she describes a spot they had visited together and wrote: "Could it be that you remember?" In the margin, in pencil and in the Emperor's hand, appear the words: "Oh, I remember. And how!"

The owner and curator of this remarkable collection was born in 1914, four years after his parents left Russia and emigrated to Sao Paulo. He obtained a law degree from the University of Sao Paulo in 1936 and practiced law for fifteen years. When a group of his clients decided to established a company to build automobile pistons, he joined them to become, in his own words, a "businessman by chance." He eventually assumed the presidency and chief executive office of the corporation, called Metal Leve, now one of Brazil's largest manufacturers of auto parts. Mindlin has found that his intellectual pursuits permit him to leave his business cares at the office. He has long been active in a number of cultural organizations, and in 1975 he served for a year as the Secretary of Culture, Science, and Technology of the state of Sao Paulo.

Yet building the library remains his primary avocation. "Part of the pleasure in collecting," he has said, "is that it is endless." He still experiences excitement when he discovers a rare book. He once wrote, "The heart beats faster. One feels emotion, but you can't let it show in front of the dealer, because if you do, the price can go up."

Joseph A. Page, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, is the author of Peron: A Biography, and is currently at work on The Brazilians, to be published by Random House.
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Title Annotation:book collector Jose E. Mindlin
Author:Page, Joseph A.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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