In The World’s Strongest Librarian (Gotham Bks: Penguin Group [USA]. May 2013), his forthright, affecting, and sometimes surprisingly funny new memoir, Josh Hanagarne discloses a passion for books so great that he claims to see the rest of life as a mere break between bouts of reading. He’s a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library who at 6’7″ can reach the highest stacks, an Alice in his own Wonderland consumed with asking questions, a modestly observant Mormon with a newfound interest in evolution, and a dedicated weight lifter who launched his blog, World’s Strongest Librarian, to keep track of his progress.
He also has Tourette Syndrome, which first became evident when he quaked his way through a Thanksgiving play as a first grader and was finally diagnosed when he was in high school. But in his new book, don’t expect Hanagarne to rail against cruel fate—“there’s always someone suffering worse and handling it better,” he said in a recent phone conversation—or to celebrate an inner strength that readers might emulate. He has no patience with the self-help genre, which he says blindly promises “specific outcomes that might not be near what people think they deserve or want,” and he finds talk of his own courageousness just plain silly. As he confided, “I hope you never hear me say I am inspirational.”
Both on the page and in person, Hanagarne comes across less as upbeat despite it all than simply interested in other things; he’d rather move on and pose another question, pick up another book, or help another library user (though his portraits of some of the nutty folks who wander through his library’s doors are deliciously wicked). His high school years don’t sound atypical; he played on the basketball team and had plenty of friends while seeing himself as a tormented musician with a bad haircut and an inability to attract girls. “For a results-oriented person examining my life on paper, it probably looked like I had nothing to whine about,” he concludes.
Hanagarne refuses to play noble, insisting that he’s very whiny internally (which is hard to imagine); in his take-charge way he sees such moodiness as “a bridge to the next thing I want to do.” He’s also honest about how painful and debilitating Tourette’s can be. Anticipating a party makes life shine; relentlessly anticipating the next, possibly shattering tic can be exhausting. To understand what Tourette’s feels like, Hanagarne suggests jerking your arm or leg repeatedly “and do that until you are tired. Now do that for the next ten hours.” That’s just a glimpse into the physical anguish that can be wrought by the syndrome’s tics, which have caused Hanagarne to punch himself in the face and also repeatedly wrench his joints. For that reason, after several failed efforts to treat his Tourette’s, he turned to weight lifting.
Though Hanagarne laughs at the idea of his being the strongest anything (“I’ll have to wiggle out of that”), he acknowledges that he’s decidedly stronger than your average Joe. Weight lifting allows him to resist injury and build back the strength he loses with a bad bout of tics; it also gives him a sense of being in control. He launched his blog as a means of tracking his workouts but soon found the need for some sort of narrative, which wasn’t hard as he has been an eager writer since age 15. Naturally, he started writing about books, and his engaging and energetic commentary now attracts somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 viewers a day.
As evidenced by his blog, it’s not Tourette’s or the weight lifting he uses to counter it that define Hanagarne but a restlessly inquiring mind that can put together pumping iron with a pumped-up enthusiasm for knowledge. The idea that it’s always good to inquire runs throughout Hanagarne’s narrative and ultimately influenced his job choice; as he says in the introduction, “The library taught me that I could ask questions I wanted and pursue them to their conclusion without judgment or embarrassment.” Are librarians best characterized as a naturally curious bunch, then? “That’s very true,” he concurs. “And I would think that even if I never worked at a library.”
Beyond his job at the library, which as any librarian understands doesn’t always concern books, Hanagarne is positively swallowed up by his love of reading. “It’s an addiction, a superior addiction,” he explains. “What makes the world move is stories and ideas.” For Hanagarne, reading is an entertaining way to learn about oneself and the world, so he watches with particular regret as some youngsters start resisting its lure. “We usually lose the boys first,” he says in his book. “They’re excited about reading at first, but once they get tight with someone who looks down on reading, knowledge, or librarians, their opinions change.” Adults can best counter this drift through example, he argues; one can safely conclude that Hanagarne’s five-year-old son has never seen him without a book in hand or nearby.
In his larger pursuit of knowledge, Hanagarne remains both refreshingly open-minded and skeptically alert. Raised a Mormon for whom religious practice was not so much a matter of urgency as simply part of the backdrop, he found less comfort in religion as he grew older and at one point had to take a break from its obligations for health reasons. He’s avidly studying evolution right now, which previously “never seemed worth the bother.” Yet he has not wholly turned his back on his beliefs, describing himself as a mildly religious person. And he doesn’t jump on every bandwagon he sees. Crystals, alternative medicine, self-improvement? Says Hanagarne, “Those books are every bit as dodgy as religion books.”
In the end, says Hanagarne, “I’m not necessarily as concerned with what people think as with how they think. I want to have time to think objectively.” His new book exemplifies that objectivity, displaying an admirably thoughtful and self-effacing approach to what many would see as some tough challenges. In his frequent presentations, generally to parents of children with disabilities, he proclaims a desire simply to lead a normal life, and here again he’s leading by example. Tourette’s can be a bruising experience for the body, but The World’s Strongest Librarian isn’t really about the physical. Even as it recounts Hanagarne’s (perfectly normal) stumbling through coming of age and wry moments of adulthood, it’s a wondrous evocation of the value of the mind.
At the American Library Association conference in Chicago this coming June, I’ll have the honor of introducing Josh Hanagarne at a United for Libraries panel, “Quirky Books for Quirkier LIbrarians.” Join us!