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A star on TikTok's BOOKTok is using the platform to improve his reading skills

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Oliver James is a TikTok star on its BookTok platform. At 34, inspired by his children, he's teaching himself to read on the social platform.

OLIVER JAMES: I actually learned by going to a park and just working out and deciding to add reading to my workout journey at that time. And BookTok discovered me.

FADEL: He set a goal of reading a hundred books this year. Right now you can find him reading "The Alchemist" aloud on BookTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

JAMES: There was a small building there with a window at which people bought tickets to Africa.

FADEL: Oliver James told me that the school system failed to help with his reading disability when he was growing up. But he's gradually moving past that setback.

JAMES: Every day is a struggle. I can give you a little feedback on something that I did yesterday. I took my 10-year-old to the doctor's. And I didn't even know how to fill out his paperwork. And it made me sweat. My palms were, you know, sweating even till today. And it's weird, but I had him fill out the things that he knew because he knows more about, you know, education and reading and spelling than I do. And I actually had to give the paperwork back and tell them, hey, I don't know how to read this. And that's the struggle of my everyday life as a father, 34 years old, who struggles with reading.

FADEL: But right now you are teaching yourself?

JAMES: Yes. Every single day, I go in my van, and I go online, and I pretty much put myself out there to express to the world that, you know, reading is something that I want to get better at. And I'm willing to show the entire world that I'm not good at it, so I don't have to be scared of it anymore.

FADEL: And so one of the first books you chose to read in full was "Anne Frank," right?

JAMES: Yes.

FADEL: Why "Anne Frank?" It's an interesting choice.

JAMES: BookTok told me I should read it, and that's how I ended up picking that book.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

JAMES: This book was about a young woman who journaled about the Holocaust. What I liked - how smart she was and aware she was about life at such a young age, OK? What wasn't my cup of tea?

FADEL: Was it hard?

JAMES: It was hard at first. But as I kept going, I started to get better. I started to realize this is very similar to fitness. If you do this every single day, like I did pullups every single day, you get stronger. You actually start to learn the words you're saying. It's kind of amazing. And that became my addiction, I think.

FADEL: Yeah. And what made you want to be a better reader and express publicly, hey, I can't read?

JAMES: I've had dreams of being more than I was showing myself. I always wanted to be a motivational speaker, and I would express these things to people. And, you know, people kind of would just be like, you know, you could. You can't. You could. You can't. And I knew what I could do if I had the ability to read. And I was like, If I just learn how to read, no one can tell me I can't be a speaker. I'll just go to it. I'll go take it. And that's when I said, OK, I'll start reading. And then truth - it came. I'm speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

JAMES: Yo, listen to me real quick. If you don't learn how to read now when it's a struggle at a young age, oh, you ain't going to escape it. You're just going to be learning at 30, 40. And it's going to be 10 times harder with so many more things piled up on top of you. Please, while you are young, read.

FADEL: Why do you think so many people are drawn to your journey on TikTok? I mean, 100,000 people - that's a lot.

JAMES: Yeah, I'm still trying to figure that out myself because it's not like I, you know, created the wheel. Most of these people know how to read. But I think what I did was I got into some people's hearts that, you know, they didn't realize could be opened up again. A lot of people didn't realize reading was, you know, a gift. You know, they treat it like if they walk. I walk every day. But there's someone out there who can't walk, and we don't think about that person. And now they're like, wow, I can read. And I never thought about that. And then there are people who can't read.

FADEL: Do you take any time personally to read by yourself, or is it always on TikTok?

JAMES: Yeah, I do read on my own. I suffer from severe OCD...

FADEL: OK.

JAMES: ...So I read a book about my own problems. My financial situation is not the best. So when I went to get a therapist and I realized it was going to be about $100 an hour for a therapist, I knew that, you know, hey, I got the problem. Can you help me? And they're like, without the money, we can't help you. I realize that, like, no one's going to be able to help me unless I actually learn it myself. So I went on BookTok and told everybody, and then they sent me a bunch of books on OCD.

FADEL: Wow.

JAMES: So I read those books on my own. Yeah. I had, you know, anxiety, PTSD. I had anger issues. You know, I had stress. I had things that built up because OCD was there, and I didn't understand what was wrong with me.

FADEL: Yeah.

JAMES: So it would just cause me to have these mood swings constantly. And now I get to sit back and say, hey, there's a book that's teaching me how to control that.

FADEL: You have access to all these worlds now.

JAMES: Yeah, it's amazing. And I advise anybody, you know, even if you don't know how to read, pick up a book. If you want, you know, answers to your problems or anything, there's a book that is out there that can help you in some shape or form.

FADEL: All right, Oliver James, thank you so much for your time.

JAMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.