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A TikTok star who was functionally illiterate finds a community on BookTok

Oliver James lives in California with his partner and their two kids.
Courtesy of Oliver James
Oliver James lives in California with his partner and their two kids.

Oliver James exudes an abundance of positivity and hasn't let his inability to read stop him from pursuing his interests and needs. He's managing his mental health through reading books instead of therapy.

In the United States, more than 8 million adults are considered functionally illiterate in English.

James, 34, aspires to be a motivational speaker. And, in a way, he's achieving this by sharing his journey with more than 120k followers on BookTok.

"I've had dreams of being more than I was showing myself," he told Morning Edition host Leila Fadel.

#BookTok is a communityfor book lovers and creators. The popularity of this corner of TikTok exploded at the start of the pandemic, and as of today, it has over 104.4 billion views.

James grew up with learning and behavior disabilities.

"If you asked me a year ago, 'how was school?' I said, 'Oh, good. You know, I just went to school and things happened," James says.

By "things" he means he was restrained and put into headlocks as a kid in special education. He says his followers were the ones who made him realize the education system had failed him.

Without being able to read, he has been unable to find a job that covers expenses like therapy. In the meantime, he is resorting to self-help books to help him manage his PTSD and OCD.

Financial barriers aren't uncommon for a lot of Americans trying to receive mental health care. More than 50% of respondents say cost prevents them from trying a treatment they're interested in, according to a 2021 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

James doesn't plan to return to school, but is currently focused on reading 100 books in 2023 and may hire a tutor to teach him Spanish in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview highlights

On how James discovered the BookTok community

I actually learned about Booktok by going to a park and just working out and deciding to add reading to my workout journey. I didn't know BookTok was actually even something. I'm still kind of figuring BookTok out. So, I was more into the fitness industry, trying to figure out how to push my workouts and push my content as a personal trainer, pushing myself to be a content creator for fitness. And I was reading on there because reading was a struggle for me. I would add that on there like, "hey, I can read" because it was something that kind of bothered me and it was something that I wanted to be able to express as much as I can. So I added that to something I was already good at. And then BookTok came, and was like, "Hey, welcome to BookTok!"

Every day I go online and express that reading is something I want to improve at. And I'm willing to show the entire world that I'm not good at it, so I don't have to be scared of it anymore.

On accessibility issues

They should teach you to read in the same way they teach you to talk, because you can't do anything without reading it. I have Google Voice now, so that helps me with voice, text and certain things like that. But after a while, I've learned how to read by speaking to the phone and then seeing the words, and then I learn how to text those words. So I've learned even with that. So the world has helped me a little bit with, you know, the Internet. You know, I go grocery shopping. My lady will send me pictures. You know, she can do that so I can go grocery shopping. And she's like, here's five pictures of something you need to pick up. And I'm like, perfect. I don't have to actually read nothing, do nothing. I just match the picture with what I'm picking up.

I want access to all the things I didn't understand were even there. You know my financial situation is one of them. I have only worked in warehouses or as a personal trainer because these were my strengths. Now, I've created new strengths. I can read so I can actually get a job above my pay grade right now. I can do something beyond my wildest imagination. I didn't even know I can be this person.

On why he wanted to be a better reader

I've had dreams of being more than I was showing myself. I always wanted to be a motivational speaker. And I would express these things to people. And people kind of wood just be like, "oh, you could," "you can't," "you could," "you can't." And I knew what I could do if I could read. And I was like, "If I learn how to read, no one can tell me I can't be a speaker."

On how reading has helped his relationship with his son

We read the Percy Jackson book together. We read The Witches together. And he's ten, so I have to fully remember that his world is different than mine. So he gets the reading journey, but he doesn't fully get it. But he's super supportive when it comes to it. It's opened up a new space for us to just bond. I didn't know how much my journey was going to affect him, but I see now it's not even about the reading. The books I'm reading have taught me about my mental issues, which I can now not put on to him. I can actually work on them, so he doesn't end up with the mental issues I have, because I can take them out of my household because I'm working on them. Without these books, I might have shown him these mental problems.

The audio version of this story was edited by Reena Advani. This digital piece was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.

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