The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

by Josh Hanagarne


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592407873
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/02/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.86(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.04(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Josh Hanagarne believes in curiosity, questions, and strength, and that things are never so bad that they can’t improve. He is a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and lives with his wife, Janette, and their son, Max, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Read an Excerpt


Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.

“You tall bigot!”

I stopped and wondered if these two words had ever been put next to each other. The odds were astronomical; even someone with my primitive math skills knew this. I laughed, which didn’t help the situation, which was this: A guy wearing a jaunty red neckerchief had walked by the reference desk, yelling about the “motherfucking Jews and lesbians on the Supreme Court.” I had asked him to lower his voice and voilà! Now I was a tall bigot…the worst kind of all.

“What are you, some kind of Jew?” he sputtered. I’ve never seen someone so enraged. I wondered what he’d do if he knew I’d been raised Mormon.

Maybe he was mad because he couldn’t find the anti-Semitism section. The library has a robust collection of what I call non-cuddly hate lit. This is one of my favorite things about working here: If you believe censorship is poison, here lies paradise. We have sections on anti-Mormonism, anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, anti-God, anti-feminism, pro-gay...there’s something to offend everyone.

Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the Salt Lake City Public Library, won numerous awards for his vision and technical derring-do. He thought big, appropriately, because a building that can hold 500,000 books is enormous. The number of items circulating each hour is rivaled only by the number of people napping in the corners. But nothing is as impressive as the way the building looks. I work in a beautiful building made almost entirely of glass. Seen from the air, it looks like the Nike Swoosh if it got frightened and began to cower.

An older librarian—one of the few other males—once said to me, “Whatever we deal with, coming here is always a visual reward.” This statement is poetic, accurate, and maddening. Because most of the time it feels like people show up just to fight about something with total strangers like me. Which is fine. I’m not here for the good company.

One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette Syndrome.* The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones; the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.

A patron recently took exception to a series of throat clearings I couldn’t suppress. As he approached, I put on my customer service smile and readied myself for one of those rare, mind-blowing reference transactions that I hear about from other librarians. Instead this man said, “If you’re going to walk around honking like a royal swan, you don’t belong in the library. I’m going to call security. Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.”

I stood up. I’m six feet seven inches tall, and I weigh 260 pounds. “Is it you?” I’m not confrontational, but I don’t lose many staring contests. I’m good at looming when it’s helpful. He walked away.

I also work here because I love books, because I’m inveterately curious, and because, like most librarians, I’m not well suited to anything else. As a breed, we’re the ultimate generalists. I’ll never know everything about anything, but I’ll know something about almost everything and that’s how I like to live.

Earlier today a young woman asked me to help her find a book about how to knit lingerie. This is the sort of question library school recruiters should feature in their dreary PowerPoint presentations, not claptrap about how we’re the “stewards of democracy.” They would definitely attract more males to the profession. When I arrived in my library department two years ago, the alpha male was a sixty-six-year-old woman.

On our way to the lingerie section—yes, the official subject heading is Lingerie, call number 646.42—I tripped over another young woman who was lying on the floor beneath a blanket, nestled between two rows of law books. I’m thirty-five years old and it both relieves and elates me to know I can still be surprised.

“I’m sleeping here!” she yelled.

I’m rarely at a loss for words outside the library. But within its walls I’m required to form sentences that no logical person should ever have to utter, for instance, “You can’t sleep on the floor at the library under your blanket.”

“I don’t snore!” she said, gripping her blanket with both hands, as if I might snatch it away.

“I’m sure you don’t,” I said. “That’s not the point.”

“Well, there’s no other point!”

This was an occasion when my need to be right didn’t feel that important. I made a phone call. Security interrupted her derailed slumber and led her out of the building. And stay out, I pictured them yelling, tossing the blanket after her, where it would be swept into traffic by a sudden gust of wind.

I felt a twinge of envy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a nap. I’ll admit to often feeling sleepy in the library. Most of the time, in fact. The building was constructed with the ability to save power and warm itself, so the glass walls make it difficult to find an area that isn’t bathed by soporific sunbeams. I briefly considered lying down on the floor between Black’s Law Dictionary and the Morningstar investment guides. Someone would probably report me, but I might be imposing enough to buy myself a power nap. Then someone came to the desk for help and the plan ended before it began.

I really want someone to ask me a question that is not “How many times can I fall asleep in here before I get kicked out?” I really want this building to serve the purpose for which it was intended—as a breeding ground for curiosity.

I work on Level 3. If you’re on my floor you’re probably looking for information about Bigfoot; the healing powers of crystals, self-help, or psychology; you’re trying to expunge something from your record and need the law section; you need to lose weight; you heard that people make money on the Internet; you need to summon some pixies; you want to get into hat-making; you can’t sight your rifle; you’re sick of the Jews; you’re sick of the people who won’t shut up about being sick of the Jews; you’re looking for a Bible; or you’re cramming for the SAT. Unless you’re just looking for a place to sleep, in which case I’d direct you to any of the comfortable chairs laid out around the perimeter, out of my direct line of sight. And if you’re hooking up with your drug dealer, that’s usually conducted in the restrooms.

Later this morning, something actually happened that didn’t require me to wake someone up or tell him to watch porn at home. An African American man asked me if the Hutu tribe in Rwanda had any Jewish ancestry. What a fascinating question. We started hunting through the library’s incredibly expensive, underpromoted, and underused research databases. After an hour we realized that the question was bigger than we could complete during one session, but he had enough leads to pursue on his own. We’d forgotten that the rest of the world existed as we leaned over my computer and hurried to and fro in the stacks grabbing books.

As always, many patrons wanted to research their genealogy. I always wonder why. Were they trying to discover whether they might have an inheritance coming to them? Being kept from them? Researching the people who led to their own genetic impairments? I have Tourette Syndrome because of some combination of my parents’ crazy innards. His genes met hers and said, “Hey, let’s get stupid!” I can’t blame them for not knowing any better. If there’s a memo out there that says Never cross a Navajo and a Mormon or you’ll create a twitchy baby who will be a burden forever, they never got it.

At lunch, many of the librarians lurched up to the staff room and fell onto chairs and couches with their books and magazines. Librarians as a rule move about as well as the Tin Man did before Dorothy brought him the oilcan. Their heads often sit so far forward on their necks that they look like woodpeckers frozen in mid-peck. Their shoulders are rounded from answering the phone, typing, eating, and reading. Their hands at rest inevitably rotate into the typing position. They spend so much time looking down at computers and into books and talking down to people from their tall desks that it’s become an unnatural effort to raise their eyes to make eye contact during conversation.

I move quite well, partly because during my lunch break, I go downstairs to the library’s diminutive fitness room, wrap my hands in thin, well-seasoned leather strips to protect them, and bend horseshoes. I’m also working on the goal of deadlifting six hundred pounds, but I do that outside the library walls. The sound of six hundred pounds hitting the ground is serious. Dropping that much weight in the basement of the library would echo up to the top floor and wake everyone up. When I hit a snag, I call my coach, a man named Adam.

Adam is a former air force tech sergeant, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and the sort of hard-ass who describes poor haircuts as “a lack of personal excellence,” even though his hair is currently poufy and awful and makes him look like a Dragon Ball Z character.

He has the entire poem, all sixteen lines, of “Invictus” by William Henley tattooed on his left arm.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

More on him later.

After lunch a teenage boy with chains crisscrossing his pants slumped into the library, limping as if he’d stepped into a bear trap. He needed some books for school, he told me, “Books that aren’t all gay and shit.” I’d love to have a sign demarcating that section. We probably need another one for the child abuse books. The teenagers love that stuff. One of our most popular books is a memoir about child abuse: A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer. I tried to read it once and was too unsettled by the second chapter to ever pick it up again. But the teens can’t seem to get enough of it.

I can always tell the kids who’ve been sent to the library to find a book from some teacher’s boring reading list. They trudge in with their eyes on the carpet, breathing hard with annoyance. Many of these kids will do anything to avoid talking to us. Many of these kids have never said anything to me besides, “Yeah, I have to read this book called Johnny Tremain.” Kids who want to read Pelzer’s book practically jump on top of my desk in their eagerness to read about a child being mistreated. We should probably just give up and order a hundred more copies of A Child Called “It.”

After helping the kid find the not-gay section, I watched another patron vomit into a garbage can.

“Pardon me, sir,” I said. “Could you make it to the restroom?”

“I’m fine here,” he said.

I did lots of dusting. I focused on the tops of shelves that only the very tall can see. I helped a delightful elderly woman with an unidentifiable accent create an e-mail account on the public computers. When I asked her what she liked to read—I can’t figure out how to quit asking this question of total strangers—she said, “I enjoy the nakedest of romances.”

There was some excitement in the afternoon. We had a break in a two-year-old mystery. Someone has been waging a war against the harmless 133s. Occultism. Crystals. Sylvia Browne. Summoning pixies safely—yes, there is apparently a wrong way to do it. Energy fields. Enneagrams. Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. Angels. Satan. These books have been vanishing.

One day a shelver spotted a shelf that was wrenched open at the bottom. In the hollow underneath it was a bunch of Wicca books and the timeless classic Witch in the Bedroom: Proven Sensual Magic. When we looked under the other shelves, we found a couple hundred books that had been hidden. We pretended to be outraged—this was censorship!—but it was hilarious. I wanted to know who was doing it, and how.

When we put the books back on the shelves, they vanished again. Replacement copies disappeared as well, sometimes within an hour. I’d taken to patrolling the perimeter every ten minutes, determined to apprehend the crooks and thank them for entertaining me so well—and to remind them that there were a few Sylvia Browne books on the shelves that they’d missed. We found no one.

But today a shelver saw two men raising the bottom shelves! They escaped. We investigated and found dozens of missing books. Now we’re trying to figure out how to entice the shelf-secreters back and trap them. I suggested leaving some books about Stonehenge and the Mayan calendar strewn about as bait. I long to shake the hand of the man or woman who scuttled Accepting the Psychic Torch out of sight, out of mind, out of reach, in the dust below the bookshelves.

I can’t imagine the monks in the libraries of yore dealing with this nonsense. Waking people up, encouraging them to view porn, vomit, and procure drugs elsewhere. Sure, those monks had to condemn Jews and lesbians, but they didn’t attend patron education workshops because there were no patrons, only themselves. Beyond the occasional visit from a grand inquisitor, they were left alone to use the libraries as they were meant to be used.

The purpose of libraries—to organize and provide information—hasn’t changed. They’re billed as the Poor Man’s University. (Many librarians also bill them as the Poor Man’s Day Care or the Poor Man’s Urinal.) I love working here because the reasons behind libraries are important to me.

The public library contains multitudes. And each person who visits contains multitudes as well. Each of us is a library of thoughts, memories, experiences, and odors. We adapt to one another to produce the human condition.

Libraries have shaped and linked all the disparate threads of my life. The books. The weights. The tics. The harm I’ve caused myself and others. Even the very fact that I’m alive. How I handle my Tourette’s. Everything I know about my identity can be traced back to the boy whose parents took him to a library in New Mexico even before he was born.

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.

Excerpted from THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN by Josh Hanagarne. Copyright (c) 2013 by Josh Hanagarne. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"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 Washington Post
“Fearless and funny.”
“An inspiring, often funny tale about the power of persistence.”
“Read this book and then go hug a librarian!”
—Anne Holman, The King's English Bookshop
“Joyfully celebrates books and reading.”


A Conversation with Josh Hanagarne, Author of The World's Strongest Librarian

When did you realize you wanted to be a librarian? You document many jobs you've had over the years.

I have a few examples:

First, once I started working in a library as a low-level assistant, it was quickly apparent that the library would really test me as far as the Tourette's went. I thought, if I can handle being in a library, I can handle anything.

Second: Around the same time I was looking for the full seven-volumes of Rising Up And Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. McSweeney's had only published 3,500 of them and I couldn't afford the copies used (since they were so rare).

I couldn't believe the Salt Lake City Public Library had the full set. But it was when I saw the books on the shelf that it really sunk in: the books were dusty, taking up a foot of space on the shelf, and yet, the library kept them. It was as important (or more) that the information in the books not be lost as that they circulated. That's when I thought, "I'd be proud to be involved in this work."

What is the first book you remember reading? Why do you think it had such a lasting impact on you?

My first real memory of a book is Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. It has stuck with me because I've always had such a great relationship with my mom. The thought of not being able to find her scared me then, and it's no easier now.

When patrons of the library come in looking for a book, do you have a go-to recommendation? Why?

I work on a non-fiction floor, so I usually get asked for non-fiction recommendations. Lately I've been trying to force The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Age Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum on everyone. It's a fascinating and exciting story and Blum is a wonderful writer. Also, I have a wild crush on Mary Roach (and her books), so I'm trying to get people to read Stiff and Bonk.

[Stiff was a 2003 Discover Great New Writers selection. -Ed.]

If they want fiction but aren't looking for anything specific, I always default to A Confederacy of Dunces, The Good Soldier Svjek, Don Quixote, Catch 22, most Vonnegut, and Blood Meridian. Those are my favorite books, and I can't exactly explain why, which is why I keep going back to them.

What's the most bizarre question you've been asked as a librarian / any crazy library stories?

It wasn't so much the strangeness of the question as the way it was asked. Years ago in another library a man sidled up to the desk and said, "You know, my wife says I'm not really bringing it in the bedroom, if you get what I'm saying. I need to find some guides about really great sex so I can show them to her and say, "See, that's exactly what you're getting already, admit it!"

My favorite library story right now is only a few weeks old. I answered the phone and the woman on the other end immediately said, "Oh! You got to get that voice into adult films!" While I was helping her with her account, she kept interrupting and saying, "Oh honey! Say it again!"

You have competed in many strong man competitions. What do you think was your most memorable strong man feat?

I've only done a couple of Highland Games, but there are many more to come. My most memorable strength feat was the first time I deadlifted 500 lbs. It's a great milestone for a lifter. It was also the first time I remember looking at the loaded barbell and realizing that it was bending under the weight.

What advice would you give to others with Tourette's or a challenge to overcome?

Here is how I look at challenges:

When you're in a situation you can't control, I think the best thing to do is introduce something into it that you can control. See if that helps. Maybe it doesn't help with the specific problem, but it's still progress, and in my experience, it's hard not to feel more confident when you're making measurable, demonstrable progress. For me, that means another pound lifted, another book read, and another paragraph added to my word count.

I've given up on expecting things from life. I finally know what I can expect from myself, however, and that has made all the difference. Everyone can do that, because everyone can take an action to improve their situation, although it doesn't mean anyone will get everything he or she wants.

Who have you discovered lately?

I rediscover George Saunders every time he writes a new book. When I finished the perfect Tenth of December, his latest book of short stories, I didn't think, "I can't believe how good this is." I thought, "I can't believe he's actually gotten better since his previous book." If he weren't such a nice guy it would seem downright unfair.

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The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
Spectacular!  Note: I requested this book from NetGalley and received it in exchange for an honest review. Warning: If you plan to pick up this book, do it when you have nothing schedule for the next day or two. I made the mistake of starting this one at midnight as a “going to bed” book and read until 4 am. That said, it’s pretty clear that I loved this book. I had heard great things about it on the blogger network but was a little put off by the weightlifting aspect. I knew that I would get around to it and its looming expiration date gave me the push I needed to finally get around to reading it. Now, of course, I’m asking myself the following: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I pick this up earlier? What is wrong with me for putting this off? Because this book is fantastic. And when I say fantastic, I mean really fantastic. To sum it up, The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne is about his own life struggling with his religious beliefs and battling severe Tourette syndrome while towering over everyone else (he’s 6’7″). Oh, and he works in a library, which is a struggle for someone who makes involuntary noises on a regular basis. But far from being clinical or scientific, the book is written in a way that made me feel as if the author were sitting in front of me telling his story. Holding nothing back, we take a life’s journey with Josh, from his Tourette Syndrome interfering with his love life to his doubts about his Mormon faith.¿ ¿What I love about this book is that it’s so real. Unlike many memoirs, the author doesn’t take care to make his life seem anything other than what it is.  It isn’t painted with doom and gloom, nor is it glossed over and made into a self-help, optimism book. And, while I have no experience with Tourette’s on a personal level, I could relate to Josh. I could relate to his awkwardness and doubt about religion. I could relate to him not getting his college degree until he was older. I could relate to being the oldest of the kids in the family. And, I could relate to his faking confidence in social situations because he was embarrassed about something his body did without his permission. Ultimately, Josh’s story is about hope, family, determination, and redemption. And it’s fantastic. But don’t take my word for it – read it yourself!
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading memoirs, but I wasn't sure what to expect from The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. I viewed the book trailer, and Josh Hanagarne struck me as genuine, intelligent, and very interesting. That trailer was amazing, and definitely made me want to read the book. I'm so glad I did! I expected to like this book just fine, but ended up feeling blown away. I loved it! Weight-lifting, Tourette's, and the Mormon faith? Many readers (myself included) may not know much about these things. Josh Hanagarne has a way of giving readers the information they need in order to know what he's talking about, and just a bit more for interest and to realize why it's relevant to his story. He never bogs down the reader with too many details, which was one of my concerns, knowing weight-lifting was a part of his story. But even as much as I normally hate reading anything related to sports, I enjoyed reading every word of this book. I love Hanagarne's sense of humor, especially when confronted by "shrill athiests" or in a community council meeting, which I totally pictured as an episode of Parks and Recreation!. We're about the same age, and I was tickled to see references to Dragonball Z, MC Hammer, and - my favorite! - the Sweet Valley Twins. I think the majority of avid readers will identify with Josh's thirst for knowledge, that desire to learn "something about everything." I think they'll also appreciate his beautifully stated argument as to why "physical libraries always need to exist in some form." Before reading this memoir, I had very superficial knowledge of Tourette Syndrome. What an eye-opener! I had no idea how severe Tourette's could be. Hanagarne describes the way his tics took control of his body with such clarity, I found myself feeling tense and frustrated for him as I read. I took a lot of notes: I marked things I want to look into and learn more about, wrote down books I want to read, books I've already read long ago and want to rediscover, and quotes that inspired me. (Of course a book by a librarian is going to add to your to-be-read pile!) There are no dysfunctional family stories in this memoir; Josh Hanagarne has an amazing support system. You will love his parents! Even during its heartbreaking moments, The World's Strongest Librarian is full of love, hope, perseverance, and humor. This is an encouraging read you do not want to miss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would recommend this book - it offers great insight to what an individual with Tourette's faces on a daily basis. The author also has a great sense of humor, which makes it an easy read.
WhisperGant More than 1 year ago
Josh Hanagarne has taken the lemons of life and made himself a tasty pitcher of lemonade. Extremely tall, skinny, and suffering from Tourette's,, Josh had a lot to overcome. But between his love of books and dedication to weightlifting, he conquered his demons. The book is filled with heartbreaking stories, but is also peppered with humor to keep the book moving at a good pace. Definitely recommended!
SuperLibrarianBlog More than 1 year ago
Of course, being a librarian, I loved reading all of the stories about the strange and interesting situations Hanagarne encountered at work as well as his childhood memories about his love of books and reading. The Dewey Decimal classification subject headings at the beginning of each chapter were a nice touch! Beyond that, I was fascinated by the author’s experiences with Tourette’s and how it affected his education, career, faith, and family relationships. Hanagarne didn’t sugarcoat anything—he discussed the intimate details of his struggles and how he overcame some incredible difficulties to start a family and a career. At the same time, though, he maintained his sense of humor which made this book an entertaining, engaging read.
NickyCaffey More than 1 year ago
Josh Hanagarne's World Strongest Librarian is a great book that really lets the reader know what its like to have Tourette's and how he personally battled the affliction with a dedication to strength training. Great book.
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
Thanks to Monika at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall, I was able to get a copy of The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne. Where has this book been all my life?  I loved loved loved it!  I am disappointed in myself that it sat on my bookshelf for this long. This is the true story of Josh Hanagarne.  Josh has a lot to deal with.  He's super duper tall and thin, with red hair and Tourette's.  He also is Mormon, but has some rifts in his faith at times.  Josh's Tourette's is extensive, and ends up controlling his life. He tries to control his tics by weightlifting.  But the tics interfere with a lot: his love life (or lack thereof), his schooling, and his jobs. Can Josh pull it together to become the weightlifting, Mormon librarian with controlled Tourette's?  Or is he destined to struggle with his disease and his patrons at the library? This book is must read!  It was funny, charming, and open, which all began with Josh's willingness to describe his struggles through faith and Tourette's. Have you checked this book out yet??? Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! I couldn't put it down--really, finished it in one day! I've been reading Josh's blog for awhile and I'm so glad the book is out. If you enjoy the book, check out the blog!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ending this book felt like saying good- bye to a friend.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this. A story about a young man who has Tourette's syndrome and learns to control some of his problem through weightlifting and other exercises. The cover reminded me of my younger days when I always carried a lot of books everywhere and my friends teased me about being a"walking library." It's nice and short for plane trips and other journeys where you may want reading matereial. Of course, the young man becomes a librarian.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book - couldn't put it down.  I have a 10 year old son with Tourettes and this was recommended to me by a friend who heard an interview with Josh on NPR.  Was a quick read - definitely recommend!  Look forward to another book by him!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It was a very quick, fun read despite the very difficult journey Josh has had with Tourette's. Especially great for anyone with a loved one who has Tourette's.
Blondie2 More than 1 year ago
Hea-rtwrenching and hilarious! Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I want o read this it sounds really good