To say that the many parts of Josh Hanagarne are divergent is an understatement. Hanagarne is a lapsed Mormon, a bona-fide bookworm and librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, a 6’7 strongman (who experiments with kettlebells and railroad tie bending) and has Tourette Syndrome. Fortunately, Hanagarne also possesses a disarming and goofy sense of humor. In his memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, he refers to his Tourette’s as Misty (short for Miss Tourette’s). His guiding maxim, repeated throughout the memoir, is the succinct and sincere, “Don’t be a dick.”
The World’s Strongest Librarian is a story about all of Hanagarne’s life, but it is most attuned to what it’s like to live with Tourette’s, and how family, books and strength training have helped Hanagarne cope with his symptoms.
“Tourette's is not Hollywood Tourette’s,” Hanagarne explains. “It can look and sound and feel like a lot of different things.” In the memoir, he describes his tics in detail: they’re verbal (Hanagarne calls it “yelping”) and physical: he blinks and twitches, or tenses certain muscles.
“Right now, my tics are worse than they’ve ever been, even though my life is better than it’s ever been,” Hanagarne says. “My brain doesn’t know the difference between bad stress and good stress. But now when a bad spell sets in, there’s no sick dread of when will this end, but [I think] what am I not seeing, what haven’t I tried?”
Like learning to live with Tourette's, Hanagarne’s path to writing a book evolved through trial and error. His blog of the same name began in 2009 as a way to track his weightlifting goals and accomplishments – strength training gave Hanagarne a degree of control over his Tourette’s symptoms. But soon, the blog became an online community: a place to debate the merits of Twain and Vonnegut, and meet others with Tourette’s.
“Once I started writing about Tourette’s, more people started reading the blog and it seemed to be a nice thing for those who have Tourette’s or a child with Tourette’s and wanted to compare notes,” Hanagarne says. “I want to be as useful as possible. But I hope I’m never the guy who says, ‘You know what’s inspirational? Me,” he laughed.
While Librarian moves chronologically, starting with Hanagarne’s childhood, each chapter begins with an anecdote from the library. These episodes include finding people sleeping in the stacks, having to tell patrons that they’re not allowed to watch porn on library PCs, and fielding requests like, “The machine does not work. Fix it. You fix,” at the information desk. Rarely do these interactions involve actual reading. “Whenever the teenagers are quiet, I assume it’s because they’re impregnating each other on the library furniture,” Hanagarne writes. As a librarian, his function is often somewhere between caretaker and social worker.
“Libraries are everything I care about,” he says. “If fear and hate come from ignorance, then a library is the opposite of that. I remember one homeless man, who told me that he’s often ignored. He said that at the library, people act like he’s actually here. You can come to a library and have dignity, and you can learn whatever you want anonymously, which is harder and harder to do, no matter how good things are on the Internet.”
Hanagarne's honesty throughout the book is endearing and compelling. He’s frank about the struggles he and his wife Jeanette face when trying to conceive and adopt children (the two now have a 5-year-old, Max), an elaborate lie he concocted during a stint working at Barnes & Noble and about his doubts around his faith.
“I don’t know and I’m allowed not to know,” Hanagarne says when describing his current stance on religion. “If I hadn’t written the book, I’d probably still be going through the motions, pretending. But when I started thinking about myself, my relationship with my body and the afterlife, I realized I’d spent my twitchy life waiting for a life where I wouldn’t twitch, and that [life] might not be real. Once I stated asking questions, I couldn’t stop.”
Hanagarne’s curiosity means he reads a lot. He doesn’t sleep well, and usually reads 300 to 400 pages a day. His appetites are broad and voracious. Childhood favorite Stephen King is something of a patron saint throughout the memoir, and passages from the Book of Mormon help Hanagarne make sense of his place in the world. His prose suggests that he’s a great librarian: a book lover, sure, but more importantly, unpretentious, democratic and naturally eager to share what he knows with others.
“Every book is for somebody,” Hanagarne said. “And all of my favorite things involve other people: readers, writers and good conversation. Even though it’s hard to be around people sometimes, they make life worth living.”
Adele Oliveira is a journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she writes for The Santa Fe New Mexican, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.