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Oliver James aspires to read 100 books in 2023. And despite lacking functional literacy, he’s achieving his goal, thanks to BookTok.

James had a difficult childhood and attended Special Education classes. His educators believed he had behavioral issues.

In his Special Education classes, he was often restrained and put in headlocks. It wasn’t until James discovered BookTok that he learned how the educational system had failed him.


I want to show some love to the book that started my reading journey. Please Y’all show some love for old Quoti for me?? #oldquoti#booktok#quotebook#keepreadingbooks

? original sound – Oliver James

James has no plans to return to school, but he aspires to perform motivational speaking for those who face the same challenges he did. He has PTSD and OCD, and would like to attend therapy, despite the financial barriers. 

Unfortunately, as he is unable to read fluently, James has difficulty finding work. He is currently managing his mental health through parsing self-help books.

According to James, “Every day I go online and express that reading is something I want to improve 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.”

Millions in the U.S. lack functional literacy

Across the country, over 8 million Americans lack functional literacy. 45 million people read below a fifth-grade level

For people like James, lack of literacy often leads to difficulties finding employment. Of unemployed people between 16 and 21, 50% are functionally illiterate. 

But James vows not to be a statistic. With help from BookTok, “I want access to all the things I didn’t understand were even there,” he says.

Learning to read through BookTok has improved his relationships. His girlfriend now sends him to the grocery store with lists rather than pictures, and he is reading the Percy Jackson series with his son.

James now understands the value of literacy in school. “They should teach you to read in the same way they teach you to talk, because you can’t do anything without reading it.”

He uses voice-to-text to help him parse words. “I’ve learned how to read by speaking to the phone and then seeing the words, and then I learn how to text those words.”

Finally, James knows reading is central to achieving his goals. “I can read so I can actually get a job above my pay grade right now. I can do something beyond my wildest imagination.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...