Courtesy of Oliver James
Oliver James exudes an abundance of positivity and never let his inability to read stop him from pursuing his interests and needs. He manages his mental health by reading books instead of therapy.
in the United States of America, More than 8 million adults are considered functionally illiterate In English.
James, 34, aspires to be a motivational speaker. And in a way, he made it happen by sharing his journey with his more than 120,000 followers on BookTok.
“I dreamed of being more than I projected,” James told NPR correspondent Laila Fadell.
#BookTok is a community For book lovers and creators. This corner of TikTok exploded in popularity at the start of the pandemic, and as of today, it has over 104.4 billion views.
James grew up with learning and behavioral disabilities.
“If you asked me a year ago, ‘What was school like? I said, “Oh, good. You know, I just went to school and things happened,” says James.
By “things” he means he was tied up and put in head locks as a child in special education. He says it was his followers who made him realize that the education system had failed him.
Without being able to read, he was unable to find a job that would cover expenses such as therapy. Meanwhile, he turns to self-help books to help him manage his PTSD and OCD.
Financial barriers are not uncommon for many Americans trying to obtain mental health care. More than 50% of respondents say that the cost prevents them from trying the treatment they are interested in, According to a 2021 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
James does not plan to go back to school, but is currently focused on reading 100 books in 2023 and may hire a teacher to teach him Spanish in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
About how James discovered the BookTok community
I actually learned about Booktok by going to a park and working out and made the decision to add reading to my exercise trip. Little did I know BookTok was actually a thing. I’m still kind of thinking about BookTok. So, I’ve been more in the fitness industry, trying to figure out how to push my workouts and push my content as a personal trainer, and push myself to be a fitness content creator. And I was reading there because reading was hard for me. I would add that in there like, “Hey, I can read” because it was something that was kind of bothering me and it was something that I wanted to be able to express as much as I could. So I added that to something I was already good at. Then BookTok came along, and it was like, “Welcome to BookTok!”
Every day I go online and express that reading is something I would like to improve. And I’m ready to show the whole world that I’m not very good at it, so I don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.
about access issues
They must teach you to read in the same way they teach you to speak, because you cannot do anything without reading it. I have Google Voice now, and that helps me with voice and text and certain things like that. But after a while, I learned how to read by talking to the phone and then seeing the words, and then I learned how to write those words. So I learned even with that. So the world helped me out a little bit in the internet. You know, I go grocery shopping. Madam will send me pictures. You know, she can do that so I can go grocery shopping. And she’s like, here are five pictures of something that you need to take. And I love perfection. I don’t actually have to read anything, nor do anything. I just match the photo to what I’m shooting.
I want access to all the things I didn’t even know existed. You know my financial situation is one of them. I’ve only worked in warehouses or as a personal trainer because those were my strengths. Now, you have created new strengths. I can read so I can actually get a job above my pay grade now. I can do something beyond my wild imagination. I didn’t even know I could be that person.
On why he wanted to be a better reader
I dreamed of being more than I saw myself. I always wanted to be a motivational speaker. I would express these things to people. And people are kind of woodsy being like, “Oh, you can,” “You can’t,” “You can,” “You can’t.” And I knew what I could do if I could read. And I was like, “If I learn to read, nobody can tell me I can’t be a speaker.”
On how reading helped his relationship with his son
We read Percy Jackson’s book together. We read witches together. And he’s 10, so I absolutely have to remember that his world is different than ours. So he gets the reading journey, but he never fully absorbs it. But he is very supportive when it comes to it. It opened up a new space for us to just bond. I didn’t know how much my trip would affect him, but I see now that it’s not even about reading. The books I am reading have taught me about my mental problems, which I cannot now bring to him. I can actually work on it, so it doesn’t end up with my mental issues, because I can get it out of my house because I work on it. 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 Wahidi.