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After Revealing He Couldn’t Read, Former Convict Is Inspiring Others on TikTok — Here’s How (Exclusive)

"For most of my life, I never even thought about owning a book," Oliver James, who estimates he's now reading at a third-grade level, tells PEOPLE

<p>Brennan Saucedo</p> Oliver James

Brennan Saucedo

Oliver James

Standing onstage in October at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Oliver James wanted to pinch himself. Instead the 35-year-old motivational speaker, who was being honored by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, took a deep breath before he began reading from a teleprompter.

“I was nervous,” Oliver tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “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.”

Just a year ago, James would have been hard-pressed to read a restaurant menu, let alone a teleprompter. All that changed in October 2022, when he kicked off a post on his TikTok with a simple but brutally honest confession: “What’s up? I can’t read.”

Related: Man Who Was Illiterate Until Age 18 Becomes Cambridge University's Youngest Black Professor

<p>Tony Powell</p> Oliver James accepts the Barbara Bush National Literacy Honor Award from Barbara Bush Foundation Honorary Chair Doro Bush Koch and Interim President & CEO Andrew Roberts

Tony Powell

Oliver James accepts the Barbara Bush National Literacy Honor Award from Barbara Bush Foundation Honorary Chair Doro Bush Koch and Interim President & CEO Andrew Roberts

Overnight James — who had spent his early 20s in prison for dealing firearms — became a bona fide viral sensation as he began posting videos of himself sitting in his van while painstakingly working his way through one book after another. Today he has more than 273,000 TikTok followers.

“I never thought it was going to blow up like it did,” James tells PEOPLE. “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.”

For more on James' story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Growing up poor in Bethlehem, Pa., where his single mother struggled to make ends meet, James says his elementary school experience was more about survival than education.

He had ADHD and other learning disabilities and was placed in a segregated special-education classroom, where he says he spent his days trying to stay out of the way of his teachers. “I ended up graduating from high school without knowing how to read, and no one cared," he says.

<p>Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty</p> Oliver James

Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty

Oliver James

Upon his release from prison in 2014, James became a fitness instructor and moved to California with his longtime girlfriend Anne Halkias, who had no idea he was unable to read until he finally told her in October 2022.

"It was my big secret,” says James, who credits Halkias, 39, with urging him to share his desire to become literate on social media. “I kept it hidden from everyone.”

Related: 8-Year-Old Danay Ferguson Aims to Promote Literacy with Her Own Non-Profit

James — who estimates that he’s now reading at a third-grade level — has been devouring both hardbacks and paperbacks at a steady clip and is determined to finish a hundred titles over the course of this year.

“My 10-year-old reads better than me,” says James. “But I’m managing to put in about five hours a day reading and just finished my 81st book.”

“For most of my life, I never even thought about owning a book,” he admits. “Now I’ve got two bookshelves filled with about 300 books.”

<p>Courtesy Anne Halkias</p> Oliver James and Anne Halkias

Courtesy Anne Halkias

Oliver James and Anne Halkias

Related: Children Have Sharper Vocabulary Skills by Age 3 When Parents Read with Them Early on: Study

After the whirlwind of the past year, James says his journey is just getting started — and he’s determined to do whatever he can to keep motivating millions of other adults just like him.

“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," he says. "I really don’t need anything else.”

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