December 4, 2023
‘I ended up graduating from high school without knowing how to read, and no one cared,” said James.
In 2022 Oliver James admitted in a viral TikTok post that he could not read, opening up his post with a simple greeting, “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. James reflected on the experience, telling People Magazine, “I never thought it was going to blow up like it did. 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. James eventually would graduate high school, incredulously without the ability to actually read as he told People, “I ended up graduating from high school without knowing how to read, and no one cared.”
Shortly after his high school graduation, he was sent to prison on an arms dealing conviction. Once he was released, James, still without the ability to read, became a fitness instructor and moved to California with his long-term girlfriend, Anne Halkias, whom he finally told he couldn’t read in October 2022. James credits his girlfriend with coaxing him to share that he had an inability to read, saying, “It was my big secret. 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, as he told People, “Every time I get a message from someone who writes, ‘Yo, I started reading today because of you,’ I tell myself that this is priceless. I really don’t need anything else.”
James also admitted that his 10-year-old reads better than he does, but says the growth he has exhibited is his ultimate prize.
“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.”
James continued, “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 3rd-grade level, has finished 81 books and has his sights set on finishing 100 books. 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. James recalled to People being equal parts nervous and excited, “I was nervous,” James said. “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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