Illiterati by Luke Reiter

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side photograph of a dictionary

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with Ks. Part of it, I think, has to do with the acute angles: my gaze slips in and sticks, sort of like a climber’s foot wedging into a crevice. Another part has to do with the chevron formed by the arm and leg that stretch diagonally from the stem. Because English reads left to right, this chevron seems to come snapping after my point of focus as it trundles along, making Ks difficult to escape. And part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the serifs, particularly those that narrow to menacing points. On a bad day, it’s impossible for me to get over these points without catching, tearing, and feeling everything I try so hard to hold in spill out.

Image of the letter K, with an explanation in the caption of why it can be so troublesome when reading.

Fig. 1: K (Times New Roman). 1. Serifs are problematic, but it helps when they are horizontal rather than slanting. 2. The near closure here is problematic because it suggests shapes in the negative space of the aperture. 3. The most dangerous region. The upper stroke is the arm and the lower is the leg. 4. The bracket (slope) between the stem and the serif is problematic. Right angles are preferable.

So I’m having trouble with Ks. Why does that matter? Well, every K costs time. Exactly how much time is hard to say. The biggest variable is whether or not I successfully clear the K. Often, I fail to clear the K, in which case I need to perform a ritual. Rituals are even harder to explain. It’s sort of like saying a Hail Mary to protect something—the book I’m reading, its author, a concept signified by the letters—from retribution caused by my careless thinking. But the ritual has to be done perfectly, with no distractions, or else I’ll need to do it again. And again. Again. Again.

Let’s say it takes roughly 10 seconds to successfully clear one K: 10 seconds to circumnavigate the letter, taking in its contribution to a word while warily dodging the claws and jaws. If I fail at this and have to perform a ritual, that often means between 20 seconds and 2 minutes tacked on, and sometimes more. In written English, the letter K shows up with a frequency somewhere between 0.7 and 1.3 percent. Even on the high end of that range, it’s an infrequently used letter. (That’s why it’s worth 5 points in Scrabble, while E, which has the highest frequency at 12 percent, is worth 1 point). But let’s use the low end. If we suppose 250 words per page, with an average of 5 letters per word, then we have 1,250 letters. Of those 1,250 letters, 9 are Ks. In this scenario, I would spend an additional 1.5 minutes per page dealing with Ks on a good day. On a bad day, I might spend 20 minutes per page just on Ks.

K is not the only letter that gives me trouble.

Pie chart illustrating letter frequency in the main text of this essay.

Fig. 2: Pie chart illustrating letter frequency in the main text of this essay. Not labelled in this chart are J (0.04 percent), K (1 percent), P (1.9 percent), Q (0.09 percent), V (0.95 percent), X (0.17 percent), and Z (0.1 percent). It’s interesting to note that K, even with the emphasis it receives in this essay, still has a frequency of only 1 percent.


I read a lot as a kid. It never seemed noteworthy. It was the ’90s, and we didn’t have cable. When I got bored, I holed up in pillow forts with piles of Ranger Rick magazines or illustrated books on dinosaurs, whales, tales of true adventure. The act of reading was incidental to me then; the possibilities revealed by reading were everything. Someday, I thought, I too could be a paleontologist, a marine biologist, a spy, a backcountry guide.

Toward the end of middle school, my world constricted like a clenching fist. Every surface in my life—tables, counters, floors, door knobs, keyboards—swarmed with sinister microbes. As I became aware of these threats surrounding me, I was simultaneously stricken within by hideous ideas and images that flashed through my mind and seemed to taint me as tangibly as the germs. Every thought became bewildering, every place hostile, every act impossible, and yet no one else seemed to recognize these mounting horrors. They thought I was the strange one for washing my hands every few minutes or repeating myself if one of those shameful thoughts popped into my head.

My mom took me to see doctors who probed my anxious brain with questions. Why didn’t I stop scrubbing my hands when my knuckles bled? Why was I so afraid of my own thoughts? Did I ever think about hurting myself? After the questions, they’d send me out while they discussed the situation with my mom. Milling around waiting rooms, unwilling to sit in unknown chairs, I surveyed the magazine racks, the stacks of Reader’s Digest condensed novels. I thought I’d rather stick my hand in a bristling hive of fire ants than touch those pages that had been felt up and coughed on by countless strangers. Besides, reading itself was becoming strange, hazardous in its own way.

By the time I reached high school, the doctors had figured out I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. They regarded this as a win: now that I knew this was all in my head, I’d be free to ignore my compulsions. But for me, the diagnosis only confirmed that I was defective, that the wellspring of anxiety and alienation inside me was endless. I had no idea how to ignore my compulsions, so instead I’d have to learn to mask them, to contain my derangement within a tenuous membrane of imitated normalcy.

My junior year, I took an English class focused on short stories. I had limped along up to this point, reading as little as possible to complete assignments. In that regard, at least, I felt the same as everyone else. But my teacher assigned “Harrison Bergeron” early in the semester, and despite my difficulties, I read the whole story. From within a slender sheaf of photocopied pages, Kurt Vonnegut’s voice emerged: playful but knowing, unpretentious but insistent. He articulated pain and finitude without succumbing to them. That summer, I went out and bought Cat’s Cradle, which I read slowly but earnestly. Then Slaughterhouse Five. I branched out to other authors. In literature, I found the strictures of my mind could be outmatched by the boundless possibilities in words. It was arduous but essential—a slippery lifeline. At times—not always, but on occasion—the prickly shapes on the page would melt down, alchemize into something transcendent, and I was delivered from myself.

I got a reputation. My family gave me books for birthdays, Christmases, and graduation. They said if I kept this up, I would someday be well read. Well read. Those two syllables seem to gesture toward many more: inquisitive, intelligent, diligent, etc. I knew it would always be hard for me to travel, ill-advised for me to serve in an interdependent team. Any career characterized by urgency or decisiveness was out of the question. But if I could be well read, there was possibility in my future again. Someday, I thought, I could be a professor, a researcher, a writer.

After high school, I went to a private liberal arts college to study English. The first thing I learned there was that my newfound excitement was not enough. It was impossible for me to complete 6-page reading assignments between the Monday and Wednesday sessions of a class. I would leave my American literature survey course in the late morning with a colossal anthology and go to the library, burrow deep between the stacks, and frantically beseech Melville, Emerson, Chopin. The veins of truth and clarity I coveted were whorled throughout those myriad pages, I suspected, but the harder I worked to extract them, the harder the letters pushed back. The shapes grew thornier and the meaning went mute. By dinnertime, I might manage one hard-fought paragraph. Then I’d heft my anthology and bear it away, a portable monument to my deficiency.

The next thing I learned was that stress aggravated my disorder. I started stockpiling tubes of Lysol wipes in my dorm room and retracing my footsteps all over campus. My intrusive thoughts skittered around my skull until they manifested as tics: spastic blinking, bunched fingers, twitching lips. Soon there was nowhere I could hide—no corner of the library deep enough to conceal my dysfunction. I missed classes, then papers, then the midterm for American lit. One of my professors emailed me to ask if I was okay. I didn’t reply; my keyboard had become unruly. I learned there could be days when I had more intrusive thoughts than intentional ones, days when I lay in bed not because I wanted to, but because I tried hundreds of times to get up and couldn’t do it right. Confined in my lofted dormitory mattress, I wondered: what possibilities are left for someone like me?


The difference between a good day and a bad day is subtle. Even on a good day, Ks still give me trouble. I can tell it’s a good day if I can hold a book with one hand, lean back, and let the letters come to me. There may be missteps, but I don’t get rattled. I do the ritual and I keep pushing. I can tell it’s a bad day if I have to hold the book close to my face, one hand supporting it and the other pressing a bookmark beneath the line I’m trying to read. With this barricade, I try to hold back the next wave until I’m ready for it.

A simple illustration of a makeshift reading blinder.

Fig. 3: A simple illustration of a makeshift reading blinder. Ideally, the dimensions would be sufficient to obstruct a significant portion of the text on a page, but small enough to reposition the peephole over every word.

On particularly bad days, I set the bookmark aside and snip a panel from a cereal box, which I trim down to something like three square inches. Then I etch a small, rectangular peephole in the center, big enough to fit three or four words, and punch it out. I lay this blinder to the page and hunch over it, scraping the letters up through the peephole. This tunnel-visioned approach does nothing to smooth the prickly shapes, but it does allow me to confront them gradually, in the same way a hiker might parse strands of bramble in a thicket to minimize snags.

For obvious reasons, I prefer to read privately.


It’s been twenty years since college. Someday hasn’t come, nor has it passed me by. Instead, the notion of Someday melts away little by little, like a waning ice floe. As I age, my aspirations shrink. Occasionally, an entire raft of options will shear off with a loud crack and float away. Now I only hope what’s left is where I’m meant to be, that it’s enough to keep me from drowning.

I no longer expect to be well read. Still, I read. Not to be recognized, but to survive. It’s tedious work, and there are days the words refuse me altogether. I can’t give up because I depend on books to reveal the intricacies, the angst, the pathos of life, which are so often obscured by own warped perception; I need these vital tidings from those equipped to explore where I cannot, and those whose burdens exceed my own. So I go back to the words again and again. Again. Again.


Other letters that have been giving me trouble lately: Upper case B and D with serifs; lower case b and d, particularly in typefaces where the bowl thickens through the curve of its arc; all Cs, particularly with serifs; lower case e; lower case g in typefaces that use the double storey form; lower case l in typefaces where the serif is shaped like a tiny pennant flag; lower case m and n; Os in typefaces with thickened sides; upper case Ps with serifs; lower case r in typefaces with ball terminals; all Ss; upper case T in typefaces where the serif on the arms extends above the cap line and lower case t in typefaces where the terminus hooks to the right; lower case u in typefaces where the serif extends to the left; all Vs; all Ws.

a collage of the letters that have proven problematic to this writer

Fig. 4: Particularly troublesome letters, including several in typefaces that exacerbate their difficulty.

With all the visual gymnastics, comprehension is as much an issue as speed. To let meaning in while holding intrusive thoughts at bay is like welcoming a guest through the front door while keeping a pack of rowdy labradors from slipping out. Each guest is one letter. Each page is a gala. If the dogs get out, I’ll have to catch them before the party can continue. Often, this routine is so tiresome that the guests who were already greeted grow bored and leave, and I have to start over. Denser texts are more difficult in this regard, but nothing comes easily. The Bard is predictably difficult, but Beverly Cleary trips me up too.

Fig. 4: Bar graph representing letter counts in the main text of this essay.

Fig. 5: Bar graph representing letter counts in the main text of this essay.

What, Dad? my kids say when I stop reading mid-sentence.

They look to me.  They wait. They can read well enough themselves now that they might sound out the next word, offer it up in hopes of dislodging whatever’s stuck inside my head. But I want them to hear a sentence sing. I want to synchronize their soft heartbeats to the rhythm of a well-wrought passage.

Do you want me to take over? my wife says.

No, I say. I want to read.

And I have so much to read. I go to my shelves and look at all the books I’ve collected, always telling myself: someday. I take them down and handle them with longing, savoring staunch spines, fragrant pages, delicate fonts. Earlier this year, I received a copy of Anna Karenina, a beautiful edition I couldn’t refuse. How long will it take me to read? Will I ever read it? It weighs 2.25 pounds—a weight I feel every time I look at it. The Japanese word for a collection of unread books is tsundoku. I read that somewhere.

Meet the Contributor

Luke Reiter’s essays have appeared in Dislocate Magazine and Carolina Quarterly. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and two children.Luke Reiter headshot

Image via Rosemarie Voegtli / Flickr Creative Commons


  5 comments for “Illiterati by Luke Reiter

  1. Beautifully written. Somehow you have given words to the myriad of struggles and feelings we encounter in our household. Thank you Luke for your honest and all-too-touching representation of these silent battles. I’m proud to be your colleague.

  2. How very heart wrenching to read! At the same time, the stragies he uses to help himself are so bold and daring!
    His strength and determination are daunting!

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