Memoir

Strongman conquers fears and afflictions

 

A librarian recounts his life, from growing up a Mormon to dealing with Tourette Syndrome.

 
THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.John Hanagarne. Gotham. 291 pages. $26.
THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.John Hanagarne. Gotham. 291 pages. $26.

From its beginning to its end, this book is a charmer. 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. The sheer range shows the diversity of his subjects, which mingle fluidly and easily on these pages.

Hanagarne has “extreme Tourette Syndrome,” not so much a disorder from which he suffers as one from which he learns. His family and the bookmobile became early refuges. On his first visit to the bookmobile, he grabbed the biggest book in sight, The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King, which “was full of swearing. . . . 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’ 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 and 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 harrowing and hilarious (one doctor suggested that “a lack of perfection” causes Tourette’s).

Hanagarne’s supportive parents are ever present, made 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 gets him off the couch and into the gym. Eventually, with the help of a fitness coach 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.”

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.

Evelyn Small reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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