BookTok star is learning about mental health through books instead of therapy : NPR


Oliver James lives in California with his partner and their two children.

Thanks to Oliver James

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Thanks to Oliver James

Oliver James lives in California with his partner and their two children.

Thanks to Oliver James

Oliver James exudes an abundance of positivity and doesn’t let his inability to read stop him from pursuing his interests and needs. He manages his mental health by reading books instead of therapy.

In the United States, more than 8 million adults are considered functionally illiterate in English.

James, 34, aspires to be a motivational speaker. And in a sense, he achieves this by sharing his journey with over 120,000 followers on BookTok.

“I’ve dreamed of being more than I showed myself,” James told NPR’s Leila Fadel.

#BookTok is a community for book lovers and creators. The popularity of this corner of TikTok exploded at the start of the pandemic, and as of today it has been viewed over 104.4 billion times.

James grew up with learning and behavioral problems.

“If you asked me a year ago ‘how was school?’ I said, “Oh, good. You know, I just went to school and things happened,” says James.

By ‘things’ he means that as a child in special education he was restrained and held in a headlock. He says his followers were the ones who made him realize that the education system had failed him.

Because he cannot read, he has not been able to find a job that will cover costs such as therapy. In the meantime, he resorts to self-help books to help him manage his PTSD and OCD.

Financial barriers are not uncommon for many Americans trying to receive mental health care. According to a 2021 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 50% of respondents say cost is keeping them from trying a treatment they’re interested in.

James has no plans to return to school, but is currently focused on reading 100 books by 2023 and may hire a teacher to teach him Spanish in the future.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Interview highlights

About how James discovered the BookTok community

I actually got to know Booktok by going to a park and just exercising and deciding to add reading to my training journey. I didn’t know BookTok was even a thing. I’m still figuring out BookTok. So I was more into the fitness industry and trying to figure out how to push my workouts and my content as a personal trainer, pushing myself to become a fitness content creator. And I was there reading because reading was a struggle for me. I would add that there as, “Hey, I can read” because it was something that kind of bothered me and it was something I wanted to express as much as possible. So I added that to something I was already good at. And then BookTok came along and said, “Hey, welcome to BookTok!”

Every day I go online and indicate that reading is something I want to get better at. And I’m willing to show the whole world that I’m no good at it so that I don’t have to fear it anymore.

About accessibility issues

They should teach you to read the same way they teach you to talk, because you can’t do anything without reading it. I have Google Voice now, so that helps me with speech, text, and certain things like that. But after a while I learned to read by talking to the phone and then seeing the words, and then I learn how to text those words. So I even learned with that. So the world kind of helped me with, you know, the internet. You know, I’m going shopping. My lady will send me pictures. You know, she can do that so I can run errands. And she said, here are five pictures of something you should pick up. And I’m like, perfect. I don’t really have to read anything, nothing to do. I just match the photo with what I pick up.

I want access to all the things I didn’t even know were there. You know my financial situation is one of them. I have only worked in warehouses or as a personal trainer because these were my strengths. Now I have created new strengths. I can read so now I can get a job above my pay grade. I can do something beyond my wildest imagination. I didn’t even know I could be this person.

About why he wanted to be a better reader

I dreamed that I was more than I showed myself. I’ve always wanted to be a motivational speaker. And I would tell these things to people. And people who like wood just say, “oh, you could,” “you can’t,” “you could,” “you can’t.” And I knew what I could do if I could read. And I was like, “If I learn to read, nobody can tell me I can’t be a speaker.”

About how reading has helped his relationship with his son

We read the book by Percy Jackson together. We read The Witches together. And he’s ten, so I have to remember that his world is different from mine. So he gets the reading trip, but he doesn’t quite get it. But he’s super supportive when it comes down to it. It opened up a new space for us to just bond. I didn’t know how much of an impact my trip would have on him, but I see now that it’s not even about the reading. The books I’m reading have taught me about my mental issues, which I can’t do to him now. I can actually work on it so he doesn’t get the mental issues I have because I can get them out of my household because I’m working on them. If it weren’t for these books, I might have shown him these mental issues.

The audio version of this story was edited by Reena Advani. This digital piece has been edited by Majd Al-Waheidi.

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