The World's Strongest Librarian
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Few people expect to find a 6’7” weightlifter with Tourette Syndrome manning their local library’s reference desk. Yet, patrons at the Salt Lake City Public Library have become accustomed to exactly that. Today, Josh Hanagarne has gained control over the worst of his ticspartly through tearing phonebooks in half and bending iron spikes like paperclipsbut growing up he was just a scrawny kid who loved books.
When Josh was thirteen months old, his mother, Linda, took him on his first trip to the library. By the time he was four, Josh was both literate and nearsighted. “My mom liked to say that my three greatest talents were making librarians happy, sitting on my glasses, and reading” (p. 19).
In kindergarten, while other kids were learning the alphabet, Josh was rereading Charlotte’s Web. In first grade, Josh’s parents watched him in the school play and noticed that his face was constantly twitching and blinking. Even the promise of a new book couldn’t get Josh to still his face for more than a minute.
His parents suspected that Josh had Tourette’s, so Linda read up about the syndrome. “Once they decided I wasn’t in danger, they kept their worries to themselves and let me get back to being a relatively carefree kid” (p. 28).
In many ways, Josh’s childhood was indeed carefree. Linda was a devout Mormon, but not a “grim True Believer” (p. 36). Instead, she felt that God directed her to be joyful. Josh’s father, Frank, had converted to marry her, and the familyincluding Josh’s three younger siblings, Megan, Kyle, and Lindseygenuinely loved being together.
But as Josh grew into adolescence, his tics grew stronger, and he realized that they marked him as different. He couldn’t stop himself from squawking or stomping his feet in class. He’d joined the basketball team to impress girls, but his facial tics on the court earned him jeers instead of dates. Worst of all, he’d begun compulsively injuring himself on sharp or dangerously hot objects.
A doctor officially diagnosed Josh with Tourette’s, but felt that little could be done. Josh came to see the syndrome as “a parasite that I was in a relationship with. I named her Misty, short for “Miss T.” (p. 54). He learned guitar, read as much as he could, and met a girl who loved him despite his tics. Then Josh embarked on his Mormon missiontwo unpaid years spent attempting to convert nonbelieverswhen his world started to crash around him.
Years of struggle and additional unexpected challenges would lie ahead, butwith the unwavering support of his family, the ability to escape through books, and the unlikely advice of an autistic strongmancumphilosopherJosh eventually found a way to manage Misty and forge a life and family of his own. Filled with humor and insights into a rare and little understood disorder, The World’s Strongest Librarian is an impassioned testimony to the importance of family and the redemptive power of books and libraries.
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. He lives with his wife, Janette, and their son, Max, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A lot of people think that someone with Tourette Syndrome spews profanity uncontrollably, but your tics don’t seem to manifest themselves in that way. What is the general range of symptoms?
The obscenity thing is called coprolalia, it’s rare even among Tourettics, and it can exist outside of Tourette’s. The core symptoms of Tourette’s are involuntary movement and/or sounds. There is a massive range of symptoms, but they all fall under noises and sounds.
You speak frequently at conferences about Tourette’s. Since it’s nonfatal and affects relatively few people, are any real scientific efforts being made toward its cure or control?
Absolutely. I’ve met a lot of wonderful neurologists and PHD students who work tirelessly to find methods to alleviate or manage the symptoms. I know a lot of Tourettics who have had great success with medication, and I’m hearing good things about Habit Reversal Therapy. HRT is similar to many of the things I discovered for myself, I just didn’t know what it was called.
You botoxed your vocal cords several times in order to control your tics, essentially rendering yourself speechless. Is this a common treatment? Have you ever met someone else who manages his or her Tourette’s through weight training?
I don’t know how common botox is as a treatment for TS. I’ve never met anyone else who has done it. I don’t know a lot of people who specifically use weight training to manage the symptoms, but many people write to me about their own physical pursuits that make them feel like they have some control over their bodies: swimming, running, sports, dance, etc.
Has Max shown any further signs of Tourette’s? If he continues to exhibit tics, at what age will you explain his condition to him?
It’s hard to look at him and know what might be tics, what might just be normal fidgets, or what is just him mimicking me. I’m not positive he has Tourette’s. If he keeps having tics, we’ll talk about when he asks a question about itotherwise, I don’t see the point of having it on his mind before the question forces itself on us.
What inspired youan avid bookreader who averages four books a weekto start a blog? Do you read many blogs yourself? What aspect of your blog, www.worldsstrongestlibrarian, do you think attracts readers most: Tourette’s, strongman training, or books?
I started the blog just to log my workouts. My blog has gone through a lot of phases, but I think most readers come because I tell stories. Whether I’m writing about strength, Tourette’s, or books, it generally comes wrapped in a story.
Where do you think you would be if you hadn’t meet Adam?
I’d be weaker physically, I wouldn’t get to laugh at his jokes, and I wouldn’t have as much hope or confidence. My life is better than it’s ever been. Adam showed me that I have options, and that there’s always another question I can ask, or another experiment I can run.
In general, would you say that weighttraining is an effective therapy for someone grappling with Tourette’s or a similar malady? How would you advise an exercise novice to get started?
I don’t need to generalize about Tourette’s or other maladies to know that there’s no downside to strength training: It’s good for everyone. As far as therapy goes, weight training gives me daily successes when I can’t find other ways to win. If you’re a novice, the most important thing you can do is find a type of exercise that you enjoy. That’s what leads to training longevity.
You write that “a community that doesn’t think it needs a library isn’t a community for whom a library is irrelevant. It’s a community that’s ill” (p. 213). What role do you see libraries playing as the twenty first century progresses?
Anyone who says they know what’s going to happen with libraries is probably a consultant or a library school recruiter. The public will always dictate the role of the library, so a lot of what happens to libraries will depend on what the public prioritizes. More than anything, I want the library to be a place where people come to learn, with no strings attached.
Once you impulsively told your coworkers that you had a literary agent and a book contract, was it the first time you consciously contemplated writing a book?
No, I thought about writing all the time. I loved to talk about writing, read about writing, and dream about the groupies and glories that would accompany my meteoric rise to the apex of Literature. I would do anything but actually sit down and write.
Who are your biggest literary influences?
My literary influences are writers who I’d never be able to imitate. Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Cervantes, Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, Mary Roach, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, Herman Melville, Geoff Dyer, Katherine Dunn, JG Ballard, George Orwell, Stephen King.I honestly feel like I could list the author of every book I’ve ever read and I would still have answered truthfully.
Why are books important? What are three books you recommend everyone read in their lifetime?
Books are just objects. The ideas and stories in the books are what are important. I wish everyone would read:1.
A Confederacy of Dunces2.
- Do you remember your first trip to the library? Do you read more or less now than you did as a child? Why?
- Was there a bookor a character in a bookthat infatuated you as much as Charlotte’s Web and Fern did Josh?
- Why do you think boys like Javier are embarrassed by their interest in books? What might be done to change young people’s perception that books are uncool?
- Could you relate to Josh’s story about sneaking Stephen King novels into the house after his mother banned them? Is it okay to let kids read whatever interests them or should parents impose boundaries?
- Should Josh’s parents have taken him to specialists before the tics got as bad as they did during his high school years? Today’s parents are more likely than those from previous generations to have their kids’ “problems” diagnosed and treated. Is this a change for the better or worse?
- Advances in DNA mapping are making it increasingly possible to screen for disorders like Tourette’s. If you were at risk for passing down a nonfatal but challenging genetic condition to your child, would you want to know before he or she was born?
- It seems unfair that Josh and Janette’s application to adopt was turned down. How might the screening process be improved?
- Do you strength train or practice some form of exercise? Do you find that your body’s fitness affects your brain’s fitness?
- When was the last time you went to a library and what was your reason for going? When was the last time you looked something up using the Dewey Decimal System?
- A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled libraries that have expanded their offerings to include a hogbutchering demonstration, Wii bowling, and Star Wars days. Do you agree or disagree with the notion that “libraries must stay ’relevant’” (p. 213) in an increasingly electronic age?
- Does Josh’s success managing his tics inspire you to tackle a challenge of your own?