Memoir • Josh Hanagarne finds refuge from Tourette's in reading, heavy lifting and now writing.
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Don't share your thoughts about librarians leading bored, desperate lives with Josh Hanagarne.
As an employee at the Salt Lake City Main Library, with a specialty on third-floor volumes encompassing medicine, finance, psychology and cooking "the problem-solving books," as he puts it he's exposed to the fullest possible range of human folly, tragedy and glory.
"The public library contains multitudes. And each person who visits contains multitudes as well," he'll tell you. "I watched a man chew on his own ponytail with such boyish exuberance that it gagged him. Then he asked me if we had any tissue paper."
Those two quotes bookend, more or less, Hanagarne's rollicking, but also poignant, memoir The World's Strongest Librarian. Published last week by Gotham Books, a division of Penguin, it's receiving glowing press for the way it combines a whirlwind tour of his youth steeped in the Mormon culture of his family, his coming of age steeped in books, and Hanagarne's unique way of reflecting life experiences back onto the vast repository of reading that's shaped his consciousness.
Then there's his struggle with Tourette's, an affliction since childhood. As a force beyond his control, it has shaped Hanagarne's views on life and learning, driving him down a path of self-discipline that combines physical training between bouts of reading. Hence his book's subtitle, A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
The book grew slowly at first, written over the course of four years and as an outgrowth of his long-running blog. But its impact has been noticeably fast. Barnes & Noble selected it for the bookstore chain's "Discover Great New Writers" for the summer; Hanagarne also got a mention in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. Huffington Post named it one of the most anticipated reads of the year. Glowing press from The New Yorker put him in an ideal position for the May 2 launch of his book tour.
"It's a bit strange to have a publicist promoting your book," Hanagarne, a 35-year-old who stands 6 feet 7 inches tall, said during a recent interview in a conference room at the Main Library. "It's even stranger to hear that publicist talk about 'managing Mr. Hanagarne's affairs.' "
Fame between the stacks • Hanagarne's newfound fame is generated by more than mere novelty. As memoir, The World's Strongest Librarian is a rambunctious read of family and discovery to which anyone who grew up with a library card in hand can relate.
As the young Hanagarne finds his first love in Fern from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, he undergoes the distress of his first brush with Tourette's and finds his footing in a religious landscape at the knees of his devoted parents. The book hits a generous pace in which scenes of confusion and distress form a constant stream of narrative darts. Librarians, and library dwellers, will recognize at once that the headings incorporate the Dewey Decimal System.
The book might not have been born if not for the prompting of Seth Godin, a well-known author and entrepreneur who chanced on Hanagarne's blog and brought it to the attention of literary agent Lisa DiMona.
"I just love his story the fact that he's a librarian in Salt Lake City with Tourette's who can tear phone books in half and also reads to children," DiMona told The Tribune in September 2009, when Hanagarne's book was still taking form. "The juxtapositions are mind-boggling."
Hanagarne deftly connects books to life, darting between encounters with library patrons and George Orwell essays, or more tangible conversations between parent and child concerning reading material. The humor hits a high point when he recounts his mother's objections to Stephen King, which also hints at growing doubts about religion.
"I've read every book King has written since," Hanagarne writes. "A contract is a contract. If [my mother] saw no issues with binding herself to a God she'd never seen, I didn't see why I couldn't bind myself to a guy out in Maine who wrote horror stories."
Strength through struggle • Through bullying, books, an LDS mission to Washington, D.C. cut short due to Tourette's and more books, Hanagarne hints that his disciplined urge to read and the uncontrolled, unpredictable twitches that visit his body form an uneasy, but mutual, truce.
The tics, tensing and jerks that bolt through his body lead to a "relief that doesn't last long. The pressure might fade, rebuild, and jump out again in a few seconds, a few minutes, or longer."
Stories found in books operated on a different level of tension and release. "Once I'd started reading, I couldn't abide the unresolved stress that came with not finishing [books]," he writes.
Hanagarne said that when he started writing the book, his Tourette's seemed so subdued as to be cured. But during the writing of the last three chapters, "it swung back hard."
In one of the book's most central stories, Hanagarne is initiated into the world of lifting weights through his father, who surmises that exercise will take his son's mind off tics and twitches to focus instead on goal-setting and self-confidence. It worked.
"What I did in the gym made everything outside easier," he writes. "I was choosing to do something so difficult and painful that my symptoms didn't seem as bad."
It still works today, as Hanagarne continues to exercise on his own and in the Main Library's basement gym. Some days the Tourette's hits so hard, the idea is to make his body so exhausted it no longer twitches.
Personal story as larger narrative • Part of writing a compelling memoir, he said, is framing the narrative in such a way that the book tells your story, but never seems explicitly about yourself as a person.
"It's a book in which it's easy to change the subject," he said. "Your biggest fear as a writer is that the sad stuff isn't as sad as you see it, and the funny stuff isn't nearly as funny as you hope it is."
His story of reading life's challenges into submission, though compelling by itself, is only the medium through which the larger story of books and libraries is writ large. It's Hanagarne's hope, at least, that the public reads it that way.
"For me it's always a question of what I can do to be most useful to libraries and to other people," he said.
'The World's Strongest Librarian'
By Josh Hanagarne
Pages • 288
Price • $26
Josh Hanagarne reads from his book The World's Strongest Librarian.
When • May 30, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.
Info • Free. Call 801-484-911 or visit thekingsenglish.com for more information.