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When we first learn to read, the letters are huge. The ones in the first-grade readers were enormous. The A was like a big tent, and the B--with its bulging bosom and even bigger belly--was larger still. The C, always ready to bite the letter that followed, the pompous-looking D. All the way to the Z, which forever seemed to be looking back to make sure it really was the last letter in the alphabet.

The letters were large, of course, so we could memorize their shape. But they didn't have to be that big. If I recall rightly, my vision at the time was 20/20. It hasn't been that good since. Anyway, children's books had these whopping big letters and lots of space between the lines. And the words were short, so you wouldn't strain your eyes.

As we grew older, the letters got smaller, and the words got longer. Just about the time we no longer have a child's keen vision, we start our serious reading--newspapers, for example, with their tiny print and tightly packed lines--where sharp eyes are really needed. By the time we begin to peer more closely at such things as footnotes, the leaflets enclosed with over-the-counter medicines, and the fine print in contracts, that perfect eyesight of our childhood--which we squandered on Peanuts and Dennis the Menace--is more than half gone.

Just when we're old enough to be reading bulky tomes in six-point type, our eyes are only fit for the humongous brightly-colored letters, surrounded by lots of white space, found in children's books. The weaker our eyes become, the more we demand of them. Some of us reach for a magnifying glass to break those long-winded adult words down into the manageable monosyllables of childhood. And to restore the letters' unique personality that so impressed us as kids.

The E always seemed to want to keep its distance from the others.

The R! Lots of letters came with a foot, but the R was the only one that had one poised and ready to kick a ball.

The V, which appeared in various forms: reflected in the water as an X; on crutches, as in M; or with a Siamese twin in the W.

The Q, an O with its tongue sticking out.

We've gotten so used to reading words that we no longer read single letters.

In fact, I think children should start their reading with Hegel and lengthy metaphysical disquisitions. It takes a kid's eyesight to plough through that tightly-packed text, and they have the taster for the abstract and enough time to cope with the infinite and historical categories. And in our old age, with the wisdom acquired over a lifetime of reading, if the letters are progressively enlarged as our eyesight fails, we would be able to tackle the basic idea behind "See Spot swimming in the sea."

See Spot swimming in the sea! All our worries and confusion would disappear and our search would be over if we could just resolve this primordial enigma. Spot. Swimming. In the sea. See. Eyesight . . .

Our last book would be the first reader. And our final intellectual adventure would be the tender contemplation of the letter A. Ah, the letter A, spraddlelegged, ready to give birth.
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Title Annotation:Latitudes; letters in the alphabet
Author:Fernando Verissimo, Luis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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