Monday, April 29, 2013

The World's Strongest Librarian

by Josh Hanagarne
Gotham    2013
288 p.     Memoir

I can see it now. The librarian is doing her best to hand sell the book, The World's Strongest Librarian.: "Well, it's a memoir by a  6'7" Mormon librarian who lifts weights and has Tourette Syndrome."  Uh-huh! That's going to sell it! 

In the past three years, I have read and blogged about more than 30 memoirs, but reading Josh Hanagarne's inspiring story makes me want to know him, and not just his story. It is my favorite book thus far this year. I was compelled to read Josh's story (can I call him Josh--I feel like I know him so well) when I noticed the structure of the book.  He uses Dewey library classification numbers to outline what he is going to discuss in each chapter. Then he tells a disgustingly humorous incident from his library work followed by narrative from his life story. It is poignant. It is extremely funny.  Somehow it all fits together into a splendid whole.

My knowledge of Tourette Syndrome is limited. I once had a second grade student who we feared had Tourettes, but he moved on to a special school and we never saw him again. Josh describes his condition thus: "One of the reasons I work here (the library) 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." So as we read along, we learn all about Tourette Syndrome, how it was diagnosed in Josh, and the extreme measures he has developed to cope with it. That in itself is reason to read the book. But the book is not another disease memoir. 

My knowledge of the Mormon faith is also limited. I learned a great deal about Mormonism from reading about Josh's upbringing, his mission, his wife's faith, and his questions. This I especially appreciated, because I have come to realize that questioning is part of religious belief, and frankly, I like to read about people who don't just blindly follow a religious path. He writes about his questions and the peace he has made with his lack of "religious" faith, although he continues to exhibit a great deal of "spiritual" faith.

I didn't know much about bodybuilding and absolutely nothing about kettle bells, which Josh took up to try to alleviate the stress of the Tourette Syndrome. I am all for finding natural ways to alleviate debilities if at all possible, and I was interested in learning about how bodybuilding helped him. I loved the story about his going to work out with a famous bodybuilder in North Dakota. Darkly funny.

One thing I do know a lot about is family, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Josh's wonderful family. His gracious understanding of how important family is to him is evident throughout the book, but especially as he struggles with his Mormon faith. Mormons believe that family will be together throughout eternity, and makes his struggle with religion all the more dramatic.

Most of all, I know about libraries. I loved all the reasons why Josh became a librarian and why he stays a public librarian. A woman recently told me that her husband doesn't like to go to our wonderful public library because there are so many homeless people there. Josh talks about the reasons why the library serves ALL the population of the community. Some of the stories are hysterically funny and some are thought provoking. My favorite is about how Josh came upon a drunk vomiting in a waste can in the library stacks. He asks if he can help him to the bathroom. The drunk responds, "No. I'm fine here!" I could just see it happening. Another favorite is when he was asked why the books about religion weren't in the fiction section of the library. That was one question I had never thought of. I was reminded again of how librarians are among the greatest spokespeople for freedom of speech. He says, "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 everybody."

 Josh Hanagarne's story, The World's Strongest Librarian, is totally unique. You have never read this story before. To say that it is inspiring is not to do it justice, because it is complex and utterly human. I could just go on and on. Thank you Josh for telling your story. I have been moved and inspired. One reviewer said, “Everything about this book is big: certainly it is the story of a 6′ 7″ librarian with Tourette’s, but it is also the quest for how we know, how we feel, and how we love… without reservation. I found it impossible to put down; save a day to read this.”

Josh Hanagarne's website: He also has a book club that he runs from his website.
This is the video introduction to the book. You can meet Josh Hanagarne here:

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