reading, books

Oliver James Is Inspiring People To Learn How To Read Via TikTok

"I ended up graduating from high school without knowing how to read, and no one cared," said James. 

In 2022 Oliver James opened a now viral TikTok post with, “What’s up? I can’t read.”

The post, to borrow the title of a Twista song, made James an overnight celebrity on the platform, racking up 273,000 followers on TikTok as he posted videos showing himself slowly working through books as he taught himself to read.

“I never thought it was going to blow up like it did,” James told People Magazine. “I started out on this journey just to help myself, but it turns out I’m helping a lot of kids and even adults who have been struggling with reading like I was.” 

According to the Barbara Bush Foundation, approximately 54% of people between the ages of 16 and 74 lack literacy proficiency, meaning they read below the equivalent of a 6th-grade level. James, however, was functionally reading illiterate, which he attributes to ADHD and other learning disabilities he lived with as a young person.

“I ended up graduating from high school without knowing how to read, and no one cared,” James told People.  

Shortly after, he went to prison on an arms dealing conviction. Once he was released, James, who still couldn’t read, became a fitness instructor and moved to California with his long-term girlfriend, Anne Halkias. James credits his girlfriend with coaxing him to share that he had an inability to read. “It was my big secret,” he said. “I kept it hidden from everyone.”

For James, the satisfaction of knowing he is inspiring others to read books is something that still floors him. In the meantime, his appetite for book is growing.

“My 10-year-old reads better than me,” James said. “But I’m managing to put in about five hours a day reading and just finished my 81st book. For most of my life, I never even thought about owning a book.Now I’ve got two bookshelves filled with about 300 books.” 

So far in 2023, James, who estimates that he now reads at a third grade level, has finished 81 books. He’d like to get to 100.

In October, the Barbara Bush Foundation honored James with the National Literacy Honors Award, which required him to read a teleprompter to a large audience.

“I was nervous,” James told People “But knowing that I was about to do something in front of all those people that I wasn’t very good at was an exciting type of nervousness that I’ll never forget.” 

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