He is neither a bestseller nor has he reviewed any literary piece but he has become a “BookTok” influencer who commands massive followers on social media. Oliver James could barely make meaning from a string of sentences in the book. However, he witnessed a significant transformation when he made a candid confession on TikTok in October 2022 detailing his struggles with reading.
He posted on TikTok “What’s up? I can’t read.” This single post is responsible for his overnight success.
After serving time in prison for firearms dealing in his early 20s, James experienced an unexpected viral breakthrough by sharing videos of himself reading in his van on TikTok.
His follower count has surged to over 273,000, and he expressed surprise at the impact. He initially started the reading project for personal growth but he later found fulfillment in helping others, particularly children and adults facing similar reading challenges.
James, raised in poverty in Bethlehem, Pa., recounted a challenging elementary school experience focused on survival due to his single mother’s financial struggles, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Battling ADHD and learning disabilities, he was placed in a segregated special-education classroom, spending his days avoiding teachers. Despite graduating high school, he lacked basic reading skills, and he expressed a sense of neglect, stating that no one showed concern for his literacy challenges.
Released from prison in 2014, James transitioned to a career as a fitness instructor in California alongside his girlfriend, Anne Halkias. Concealing his inability to read, he finally disclosed the secret to Halkias in October 2022. Crediting her encouragement, James began sharing his journey to literacy on social media, having previously kept this aspect of his life hidden from everyone.
Despite reading at a third-grade level, James is on a mission to complete 100 books this year, dedicating around five hours daily to reading. He admitted that his 10-year-old reads better but he takes pride in finishing his 81st book. James, who never considered owning a book for most of his life, now boasts two bookshelves holding approximately 300 books.
Despite the whirlwind of the past year, James sees his journey as just the beginning.
Determined to inspire millions of adults facing similar challenges, he said he finds immense value in messages from people who started reading because of him, considering those moments priceless and expressing contentment without needing anything else.