“What’s up! I can’t read.”
That's how Oliver James began the viral video that launched his TikTok account, @oliverspeaks1, where he now documents his reading journey to over 130 thousand followers.
“I went in my van and I pretty much just said 5 words ... and that just started the whole entire journey on TikTok," James told TODAY's Joe Fryer.
James is one of over 8 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. As a child, he struggled with learning disabilities and was placed in special education. He says he suffered from abuse within the school system, and found it hard to focus on school, let alone reading.
The 34-year-old California resident, who works as a personal trainer, tells TODAY.com in a separate interview he could read “enough to get by,” but he could tell his habits differed from his peers. If someone handed him a menu at a restaurant, it would take him an hour to read it.
So James took the task upon himself. And as an aspiring motivational speaker, he turned to TikTok last year in the hopes of encouraging others while removing the stigma surrounding illiteracy.
“If you struggle with the same things, no matter what your age is, it’s all good,” he says in one of his TikTok videos. “No need to be embarrassed because we can learn.”
James, who also has a personal training business, posts a mix of content related to fitness (he’s currently on a mission to perfect a one-arm handstand), reading and motivational content. He's opened up about his personal life to his followers along the way, too.
Alongside classics like “Percy Jackson” by Rick Riordan and “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, James is also reading books on obsessive-compulsive disorder. He says he was diagnosed with the mental health disorder, among others, after his abusive schooling experience and serving time in federal prison.
James encourages his six-figure TikTok following to address mental health issues, which is what he credits for getting him through these adversities, “Honestly, focus on your mental health because that’s the starting point to make changes in your life.”
His enthusiasm and commitment to his goals has garnered him an equally dedicated following. After his first viral video, James was quickly embraced by the BookTok community, a niche corner of TikTok where users connect with one another over their shared love of reading.
“I think my main goal was to put out motivational content to grow in any aspect of their life,” he says.
His story continues to resonate. James says he is constantly receiving supportive messages from followers who say his videos have not only reignited their own passion for reading but motivated them in other arenas of their life.
“Thank you for sharing your story! You are healing others by speaking your truth,” one user wrote.
When asked why his videos are so impactful, James says, “I’ve opened up a part of people’s hearts that they closed out as they age, with my reading."
James, who used to find ways around reading by texting with voice memos, has received over 200 books, including through a gift card from Barnes and Noble since starting his journey.
"When they gave me the gift card, I was just like, ‘I'm going to be able to build a library.' I went from no books at all when I put that (first) post up," he says. "It's shocking. It's support toward the dream."
James aspires to read 100 books in 2023. “I like to go zero to 100 real quick,” he says, laughing. “I like to kind of push the barrier a little farther than it needs to go so I can learn.”
But he's not limiting himself to a certain page number, or even a certain medium. As he goes through the world with this newly refined skill, everything is reading material.
“So if I’m just reading the back of a cereal box, that’s what I did today,” he says. “If I decide I want to binge read and just do it, then I treat myself that way.”
While James values being motivational for his TikTok following, the reason behind the 100 books is personal: He's doing it for his newborn son.
“I want to merge it into my life,” he says. “I’m reading so much so that my son sees me read as much as he sees me talk.”
In doing so, he wants to be an example for his son.
“If you wanna know the answer for how to teach somebody something, be it,” he says. “Be what you’re trying to teach them.”