Oliver James graduated from high school without knowing how to read.
“No one ever told me there was a reason to take school seriously,” said James, 35, who grew up in a low-income neighbourhood in Bethlehem, Pa. “It was just a place I had to be.”
When James was in first grade, he was suspended from school. He was punished for being disobedient, and after only a week away from the classroom, “I couldn’t read like the other kids. They were so far ahead.”
That set the stage for the rest of his education, he said, and also his career prospects. Until recently, James was functionally illiterate. He could read some simple words, but not when they were strung together into lengthy sentences.
“I didn’t know how to maneuver around the world normally; I always had to do things like a person who doesn’t know how to read,” he said.
James kept jobs for only a week or two at a time, even when they required little to no reading, such as busing tables or bartending. He couldn’t read restaurant menus, street signs or text messages. He relied on voice dictation tools to get by. He felt ashamed of his inability to read, so he kept it a secret.
“I would just lie, lie, lie, lie,” said James, who had short-term jobs in hospitality, roofing and construction. He would get caught in his lies, which led him to lose jobs.
In 2020, James decided to make a change in his life. He wanted to feel more fulfilled and connected to the world. He decided he had to learn how to read. Plus, he said, he was hoping to become a father one day.
“I can’t have a kid until I read,” James remembered telling himself. “I realized, this is my time to figure out what I can do to grow.”
So he picked up a book and started sounding out words.
James’s first book was I.C. Robledo’s “365 Quotes to Live Your Life By.” His partner, Anne Halkias, helped him learn the basics, and they read together every evening.
“I would read the same quote for a week.” James said. “It was really hard.”
Gradually, though, he got the hang of it. Words turned into sentences, and sentences turned into chapters. After a few months, James was reading books – starting with shorter stories, then graduating to novels – cover to cover. The more he read, the more he wanted to read. He found it therapeutic.
“There’s nothing that compares to reading,” he said, adding that he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that reading immediately improved his mental health. “When I couldn’t read, I couldn’t help myself.”
As his reading skills improved, James’s partner suggested he chronicle his literacy journey on social media to inspire others. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 21 percent of American adults have low literacy skills.
“Why don’t you go on the camera, and be yourself?” James recalled Halkias saying to him one day. “You should just be honest and tell the truth.”
That was powerful coming from Halkias, who did not know for a time that James could not read, because he had hidden it from her.
James took Halkias’s advice, and in 2022, he started posting on TikTok about his long-held secret.
“What’s up! I can’t read,” he candidly said in one video, having no idea how it would be received.
“It’s very uncomfortable to talk about things that the world doesn’t view as good,” he said.
Still, he opened up and shared his story publicly. He explained why he never properly learned how to read, sparing no details. The video went viral.
“When I was young, I was abused,” he said in the same TikTok. “. . . It was really hard for me to think about school, reading, anything that had to do with school.”
James was honest about the awful treatment he faced at an elementary school for children with special needs. He struggled with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and behavioral issues, but never got the attention he needed to succeed as a student. He bounced from school to school, as he was repeatedly kicked out for rebelling.
“I had no guidance to show me what was right and what was wrong,” said James, who was raised by a single mother. “I was a kid, but I wasn’t being treated like one.”
Shortly after he graduated from high school in 2006, a fire at his mother’s apartment left James homeless for a year. He got caught up with the wrong crowd, made some bad decisions and ended up serving a 4 1/2-year prison sentence for weapons charges.
“I was very ignorant,” he said. “I was a kid, so I didn’t understand the consequences of doing that type of stuff.”
After he was released from prison at age 26, he tried to get his life together. He became a personal trainer but soon realized “my passion was not in fitness,” James said, adding that his lack of literacy skills limited his ability to pursue other professions.
But as he began learning how to read – and sharing his progress with people online – James finally started to feel fulfilled. He routinely reads books live on TikTok and documents his progress, including the challenges.
“It feels like I found my purpose,” he said. “I’m finally contributing to the world.”
James is now a leading voice on “BookTok” – TikTok’s community of bibliophiles – and has amassed nearly 300,000 followers on the platform. People frequently reach out to tell him that his videos have encouraged them to learn how to read, too.
“That’s the best part of this whole journey,” said James, who received the 2023 Barbara Bush National Literacy Honors Award in October. “I went from being a person who didn’t know how to read, to a person who is now getting awards.”
James is now a motivational speaker, speaking at schools and literacy organizations. He considers himself to be reading at a fifth-grade level.
At the start of the year, James vowed to read 100 books in 2023, and he is on track to meet his goal. Of the 99 books he has read so far, his favourites have been Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” and Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements.”
He has read a combination of children’s books and novels, and for more challenging books, he listens to audio recordings while he reads. He has also been practising his writing.
James lives in Orange County, California, with his partner and her son, 10, as well as their 1-year-old son. He is hoping to grow his motivational speaking career, and perhaps write a book one day.
“These are things that I never thought I could do,” he said.
James is especially grateful for the small but significant joys that have come with being able to read. He delights in reading his son bedtime stories – something he always dreamed of doing.
“The world is totally different now,” James said. “It’s everything I ever wanted.”