Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the author of “The World’s Strongest Librarian.” He is Josh Hanagarne.
From its beginning (prefatory remarks that would-be memoirists would do well to read) to its end (acknowledgments that start with the author admitting that“this is a really weird story”), this book is a charmer. Although the title is “The World’s Strongest Librarian,” it’s the subtitle that’s revealing here: “A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.”
Josh Hanagarne, a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, cleverly uses subdivisions of the main classifications of the Dewey Decimal System as chapter headings. We’re treated to personal stories that fall into the Dewey taxonomy as topics such as 011.62 — Children — Books and Reading; 616.89075 — Diagnosis, Differential; 289.3 — Mormons Missions; 613.71 — Bodybuilding; 155.432 — Mothers and Sons; and 616.042 — Abnormalities, Human. The sheer range shows the diversity of subjects he focuses on, all of which mingle fluidly and easily on these pages.
Hanagarne has “extreme Tourette Syndrome,” but it turns out to be not so much a disorder from which he suffers as one from which he learns. His family and the bookmobile became his early refuges. On his very first visit to the bookmobile, he grabbed the biggest book in sight, “The Tommyknockers,” by Stephen King, which “was full of swearing and I was uneasy during a section in which a woman’s picture of Jesus began talking. People had sex, lost their skin, murdered one another, and wrecked their town. And there were aliens. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Already dealing with a tough adolescence of otherness — he was 6-foot-3 in the eighth grade (on his way to 6-7) — he had to contend with the manifestations of his disorder: tics, blinking and yelping, as well as involuntary noises, including the “hooting baby owl sound and the slobbering dog just finishing a round of wind sprints.” His descriptions of his family’s efforts to deal with his symptoms are at once harrowing and hilarious — one doctor suggested that “a lack of perfection” causes Tourette’s. A visit to a neurology clinic found him “torn between wanting an answer and wanting to control what the answer would be. I only wanted there to be something officially wrong with me if it also came with a quick solution.” It didn’t.
Hanagarne’s totally supportive parents are ever-present in this book, made all the more real through the portraits he draws of them. Each is funny, strong and very human. Together his parents “had a knack for making everything into a game. Learning was a reward. And when I came home from school, instead of asking, ‘How was school today?’ they’d ask, ‘What did you ask today?’ ” His dad steps in at one point and gets him off the couch and into the gym. Eventually, with the help of a fitness coach — who “has the entire poem, all 16 lines, of ‘Invictus’ by William Henley tattooed on his left arm” and who could bend “horseshoes into the shape of hearts” — Hanagarne finds his own strength, working on deadlifting hundreds of pounds and later selling his 29-volume set of the Oxford Mark Twain to enter a fitness program known as the Russian Kettlebell Challenge, in a kilt no less.
Embedded throughout the book is Hanagarne’s Mormonism. Of his college life at a Mormon school, he writes: “It’s an interesting experience to watch the religious males try to out-religious one another to catch the eye of the women. A bizarre bit of posturing, everyone trying to put the ‘stud’ in Bible study.”
Equally vivid are his stories of the process that he and his wife undergo when trying to adopt a baby through the Latter-Day Saints Family Services, which “didn’t look like a place where dreams came true.” It’s also here where he’s sure he’s sealed their fate by mentioning his “man-love” for Mark Twain: “You could feel the room deflate. Twain had famously called the Book of Mormon ‘chloroform in print.’ ”
Hanagarne’s love of libraries is at the heart of his book. “Libraries have shaped and linked all the disparate threads of my life. The books. The weights. The tics. . . . The library taught me that I could ask any questions I wanted and pursue them to their conclusions without judgment or embarrassment. And it’s where I learned that not all questions have answers.” He admits that “as a librarian, saving lives and worlds isn’t in my purview, although if I could put those on my resume with a straight face, I would,” concluding that “at its loftiest, a library’s goal is to keep as many minds as possible in the game, past and present, playful and in play.” Some quotes from this book could be inscribed on the walls of public libraries throughout the world.
Hanagarne, kind and uncomplaining, is the voice of reason and hilarity throughout, a proponent of the importance of curiosity in a life of learning. He’s a born storyteller, unpretentious and irreverent. You may think “The World’s Strongest Librarian” sounds too oddly reminiscent of a reality TV show to be up your alley. Don’t be fooled. The whole of this delightfully rich and unconventional gem of a book is even greater than the sum of its parts. Read it and laugh and learn.
THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN
A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family
By Josh Hanagarne
Gotham. 291 pp. $26