[A Life in Books; In Books, a Life]
By Josh Hanagarne’s account, the consistent presence of books is the base on which his life finds its stability. Particularly in the context of the public library, to which a substantial chunk of The World’s Strongest Librarian is an unabashed yet clear-eyed love letter, Hanagarne finds his larger purpose and his story’s shape. For certain, the structure and culture of librarianship — with its endless subject classifications and the necessary absurdity of public spaces dedicated to contradictory knowledge — lend the book its shape. Dewey Decimal subject classifications telegraph each chapter’s foci, the library’s patrons and their daily shenanigans introduce each chapter (a framing mechanism that sometimes feels a bit forced) and several chapters are entirely concerned with the purpose of libraries.
And yet, for all of its presence in the book, the story of the library in TWSL is ultimately the least important.
If we think of a library at its most basic, as a collection of volumes, we find what might be TWSL‘s core problem. Josh Hanagarne (who blogs at www.worldsstrongestlibrarian.com) is, as advertised, a 6’7″, weightlifting, Mormon librarian suffering from Tourette Syndrome. In other media contexts, that would be considered “high concept” and an awful lot to work through in a single, short book. TWSL often ends up feeling more like several shorter books, each focusing on a single aspect of Hanagarne’s life, which have been shuffled and interleaved. Because he can write about his life as roaringly funny or quietly profound or unsentimentally sincere, the book manages to hang together, though loosely. The individual volumes in this library each tell their own important story.
[“… a parasite that I was in a relationship with …”]
Hanagarne’s depiction of Tourette Syndrome is not the cursing-for-cheap-laughs version of the illness seen on TV. He does share an awful lot with Jonathan Lethem’s Lionel Essrog (Motherless Brooklyn, Doubleday, 1999) — including his size, his youth in a library, and the constant damming back of his tics. But Hanagarne, not being a monster like Essrog, delivers much more than just a sympathetic quirk when focusing on his affliction.
Like the SLC public library, Tourette’s becomes its own character in the story: the recurring villain that shows up to wreak havoc, fades into the background, threatens multiple generations, is seemingly put down and then comes back stronger. By the last chapters of the book, “Misty” becomes a full-blown presence taunting Hanagarne at his lowest point. Each new tic is described as it surfaces, and Hanagarne tells us — in the book’s singular direct address to the reader — that we should just assume that each flinch, twitch, punch and groan is continually happening even if he doesn’t say so, because he could never describe them all without becoming tedious. What we see of the daily struggle against Tourette’s is hellish. To experience all of its continual pain would be unbearable, and unreadable, but it never gets there because of the author’s good sense, and every time it comes back into focus becomes a fresh reminder of Hanagarne’s daily burden.
[Strongmen and Wise Guys]
Where the library provides his stage and “Misty” provides his villain, Hanagarne finds his strengths from three other sources, one of which is feats of physical prowess. Starting with his dad — himself an inconsistent weightlifter — tricking a depressed Josh into going to the gym, and continuing throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, the struggle and accomplishment of extreme physical exertion centers Hanagarne. When he stops lifting, we can feel the loss in his words. When he rediscovers what lifting does for him, we feel the vitality return to his life.
From his father to the gentle giants at the Highland Games to Henry Rollins and Pavel Tsatsouline, Hanagarne finds inspiration in the society of strongmen. The most profound — and the most strange — of these already odd relationships is his mentorship under Adam Glass. Glass, a veteran and high-functioning autistic, seems like he walked out of a Jon Ronson article. Tattooed, “brusque as hell,” and with the ability to make people do impossible things after just a few strange questions or tasks, Glass probbaly deserves a full-length book all to himself. It is Glass’ direction that finally given Hanagarne the tools to manage Tourette’s, and the chapters with Glass in them are as strange and honest a portrayal of a friendship as you’re likely to see.
[Man is, that he may have Joy.]
Too often a personal discussion of faith can fall to either extreme: a fervent insistence in one path to salvation, or an equally fervent condemnation of the faithful as fools. After all of the religious dog-whistling in our last Presidential election and the facile, adolescent comedy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone directed at the Mormons, I was pleased to find in TWSL a positive yet skeptical depiction of growing up in, and maybe growing out of, the LDS church. Hanagarne ultimately presents the church as just a way some people have to try to get through life.
Hanagarne’s father says, in his typical wise-ass fashion, that the Mormon faith is the “church of don’t be a dick.” In the heights of its profound influence or in the puzzles it presents in its absence, that simple rule shows forth in almost all of the book’s depictions of the faithful. Even when confronted with his doubt and his decision to distance himself from the church, very few of the devout — including his mother, his wife and his pastor — come across in any way heavy-handed or disapproving. Hanagarne writes of both his crises of faith and quiet, deeply-felt moments of grace in clear, honest language — a moment of stillness in his car before deciding to go on his mission; the receipt of a letter from his mother; a dream about a dead boy. None of the events are grand, ecstatic visions, but instead moments encountering the “still small voice” that propel him to take some action.
[Dewey Decimal 640: Home Economics and Family Living]
Ultimately, TWSL is about the strength borne out of family.
Starting with an extended montage of his parents’ courtship and the growth of the Hanagarne family, Josh’s parents are a constant, positive presence in the book. Frank Harnagane is clearly the source of Josh’s sense of humor and his work ethic. Many of the funniest passages in the book come from Frank’s irreverence, and when Hanagarne makes jokes elsewhere in the narrative, he’s speaking with his dad’s voice. Linda Hanagarne is the family’s moral compass and gives her kids their first source of strength — their love of books. The cynic in me wants to charge Hanagarne with painting a too-rosy picture of his parents’ marriage, but I also think the point is that their good life, which probably took more work and featured more dark days than portrayed here, are what set Josh up for his second act.
That act is the creation of his own family. Hanagarne suffers through a doomed first love with all the agony and angst you would expect, but he and Jeanette get it right when they finally meet. With them, we are given a view into the hard work of marriage, through miscarriages and the benevolently Kafkaesque ordeal of LDS adoption services and the constant barrier that Tourette’s throws between them. Eventually their son arrives with all the promise and fears that come with children, intensified by the threat of affliction visiting another generation. It is no accident that after Hanagarne finds his success in his work, joy in his family, and an uneasy reconciliation with his faith that his worst enemy, the dreaded “Misty” comes back with a vengeance. We’re reminded that the work of having a good life is never finished.
TWSL leaves us feeling cautiously optimistic, as one might hope from a book so full of tempered, positive messages. Not to be too polyannaish about it, but given the litany of gloom, despair and agony we learn about in our daily business, a story like Josh Hanagarne’s — even if it’s a little scattered, maybe a little too earnest — reminds us that there are common sources of strength available to anyone willing to put in the effort of accepting them.