One of the pleasures of Josh Hanagarne’s new memoir, “The World’s Strongest Librarian,” is the way it destroys this stereotype. Hanagarne, who works at the Salt Lake City Public Library, is six-feet-seven-inches tall and weighs two hundred and sixty pounds. He was raised as a Mormon, has extreme Tourette’s Syndrome (or Tourette Syndrome, as he calls it), and in his spare time trains for strongman competitions. The author photo in the back of his book indicates that his hair is too short to fit in a bun. Perhaps the only trait he shares with the received idea of his chosen profession is a love of reading and knowledge. “Like most librarians, I’m not well suited to anything else,” he writes. “As a breed, we’re the ultimate generalists. I’ll never know everything about anything, but I’ll know something about almost everything.”
Hanagarnes’s book alternates between short, often funny dispatches from his day job and longer autobiographical passages. His parents, both large people, met at a fittingly unconventional place: a uranium mine in Moab, Utah. His mother was a devout Mormon; Hanagarne’s father converted in order to marry her. Throughout the book, Hanagarne gets terrific comic mileage out of the disparity between his parents’ devotion to the L.D.S. Church. “My dad was faithful enough that my mom wouldn’t regret marrying, but … his priorities swung more toward naps than pious service.” At one point, Hanagarne’s father memorably summarizes Mormon theology as “This is the church of Don’t Be a Dick.”
Raised in Moab and Elko, Nevada, Hanagarne identifies two watershed moments in his childhood. The first was reading E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” and falling in love with the book’s heroine. “My life was divided by a lightning strike into two distinct chapters: Before Fern and After Fern.” (Later, Ramona Quimby would unseat Fern as his major crush.) The second came when he was six. Cast as a tree in the first-grade Thanksgiving play, Hanagarne endured the earliest manifestation of his Tourette’s. “Under the bright lights, my nose, eyes, lips, and tongue contorted as if they’d seceded from my face and were involved in a game of one-upmanship…. Not only did my tics last the entire performance, they got worse the longer I was onstage.”
To help cope with the condition, Hanagarne gave it a name: Misty (short for Miss Tourette’s). He sought numerous treatments, visiting quacks and ingesting drugs—Klonopin, Risperol, Haldol, Clonidine—that dulled his mind. For a time, he even endured regular injections of botulism toxin, which paralyzed his vocal cords and muted his yelps and shouts. Though silenced, his Tourette’s manifested itself in other ways. The book repeatedly gives the reader a visceral sense of what Tourette’s feels like.
While it was true that I could no longer scream, and being in public was easier, I finally had verification of something I had long suspected—there was a daily intensity quota that had to be met. I had to expend a certain amount of energy on tics each day. It could be meted out over many small tics, or a few dozen huge ones. So even though I wasn’t screaming, my body was still trying: it just couldn’t make the noise. If I couldn’t be noisy, I could still be an abomination of motor skills gone amok.
Plainspoken and direct, Hanagarne details the ways in which his condition, coupled with a Mormon upbringing, multiplied the myriad embarrassments and miseries of adolescence. Tall for his age, Hanagarne played for his high-school basketball team. During a game at another school’s gym, spectators in the crowd chanted “Tic, tic, tic!” when Hanagarne was at the free-throw line. He also didn’t have much luck with girls. “Two things kept getting in the way … God and Tourette’s.” Sent to Washington, D.C., for missionary service at the age of eighteen, Hanagarne suffered a crisis of faith that coincided with a severe manifestation of his condition. In a scene that would not be credible in a novel, Hanagarne punched himself in the face while walking down a street in the nation’s capital, holding a copy of the Book of Mormon in his other hand. That self-injury began a disastrous period of weight loss and doubt. Losing control of his body and his faith, he was sent home early from his missionary assignment and entered a long period of depression.
From that nadir, Hanagarne slowly rebuilt his life. He met his future wife, Janette, attended college classes, and, at his father’s suggestion, began lifting weights. Weightlifting, he discovered, helped with the Tourette’s. But there were many challenges. Unable to conceive a child, he and Janette applied for adoption through the church and were rejected as unsuitable. Hanagarne believes that his enthusiastic endorsement of Stephen King’s work during their adoption interview was partly to blame. Though he attended classes, he often had to drop out because of his Tourette’s. Desperate, Hanagarne turned to a regimen of strength training centered on the kettlebell (“essentially a cannonball with a handle”). He sold his complete set of the Oxford Mark Twain to help defray the cost of attending the Russian Kettlebell Challenge, a three-day certification event. “Progress in strength training gave me control over the rest of my life,” Hanagarne writes. Eventually, he sought out the strongman Adam T. Glass, a former Air Force tech sergeant who lives in North Dakota and has all sixteen lines of William Henley’s poem “Invictus” tattooed on his arm. Under Glass’s tutelage, Hanagarne developed a breathing and training regimen that allowed him to control his Tourette’s much of the time.
Hanagarne still works out in the fitness room in the basement of the Salt Lake City Library. He chose librarianship, he says, not just because of his love of books and knowledge but also because a library was one of the most inhospitable places he could think of for someone with Tourette’s. It’s an admirable and revealing choice. “Silence and stillness were in short supply in my life. There were only three times when I could count on them: when I slept, when I read, and apparently when I blasphemed,” Hanagarne writes. His relationship with the L.D.S. Church has remained ambivalent, even as he acknowledges the benefits it has brought to members of his family. In a memorable passage that exemplifies his ambivalence, Hanagarne considers whether religion should be classified under fiction or non-fiction in a library.
At one time during his depression, Hanagarne lied to his co-workers at Barnes & Noble, telling them that he had an agent and a book deal with a publisher in New York. His colleagues surprised him by putting up a congratulatory banner in the store. Time has turned Hanagarne’s lie into truth, and he deserves a banner now, for writing such a fearless and funny memoir.