I’ve been recommending The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne to bookish friends and family – especially, but not only, to people who work in libraries. It’s funny, charmingly irreverent, and entertainingly informative about his love of books and reading, but also about topics not normally associated with stereotypical librarians, such as weight-lifting, Tourette Syndrome, and Mormonism.
This memoir by a 30-something librarian in Salt Lake City, Utah, tells the story of his gradually worsening Tourette’s – a neurological disorder that he thinks of as Misty, a slyly vicious symbiote who racks his body with uncontrollable and often violent tics – but also the story of growing up in a loving family within the Mormon Church (the author’s father, a convert, not always 100% with the program) and wrestling with his faith. There are many funny moments, but his respect for those with fervent beliefs (especially his mother) is always clear.
I enjoyed the parts of the book where the author writes about reading, libraries, and the patrons he encounters at the reference desk of the downtown Salt Lake City Public Library the most, but he also writes entertainingly about people he meets while he’s doing the traditional two-year stint as a Mormon missionary; gym devotees; and cultish weightlifters online. His mother and father are also great characters and free spirits in their own ways. The author is funny, but the humor is never mean; Josh Hanagarne seems like a genuinely nice guy who has gone through a lot but managed to not be bitter.
I hope this doesn’t give the wrong impression that The World’s Strongest Librarian is all about libraries, but this excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 5 is a good example of the humor and tone of most of the book, except for the occasional sad, more serious parts.
289.3 – Mormons Missions
193 – Knowledge, Theory Of
“This is the nonfiction floor, right?”
“Yes, sir, it is.” He looks beyond annoyed at my answer.
“Okay…Josh,” he says, leaning in to sneer at my name tag. “Then why is the religion on this floor?” And now it’s clear. There’s a shrill atheist standing before me. But his question is valid. It’s a question for Mr. Dewey himself, I suppose. As cataloging issues go, this was thorny.
If you classified religion as pure fiction, you’d annoy the devout. And the fiction department that already groans under the weight of so many James Patterson novels would be stressed to its limits. But if you classified religion as nonfiction, you lent it credibility by placing it on the same floor with the sciences and books about cupcake decorating.
People who raise this issue never ask about the Sylvia Browne books or the occult mysteries section, also on my floor. They’re never annoyed that the healing power of crystals is advocated at great length one mere aisle away, or that the massive books of reptile-paranoia guru David Icke take up a square foot here and there. They accept that people who want to summon fairies would visit my department, but that anyone who prays to a God or Gods is an imbecile who mustn’t be tolerated.
Even as a mildly religious person, I am fascinated by this question. My fascination rarely makes atheists less irritated, but I find this the ultimate distillation of theory vs. experience. Anecdote versus empiricism. This floor also houses the psychology and psychiatry section, the self-improvement books, books on reflexology and alternative medicine, and the endless, trendy volumes of stock speculation. I find these books every bit as dodgy, in terms of verifiability, as the religion books.
“Well, who can I talk to about getting this resolved?” he asked. What ambition he had! The debate of believer versus nonbeliever has been raging for – oh, I don’t know, since we can’t even agree on how old the earth is, but it’s been at least a few thousand years, even for creationists. But this man was going to resolve it. Once and for all. I sent him to admin on Level 5.
Maybe our library director could handle this softball.
The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Strength, Faith, and the Power of Family
May 2, 2013
Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. And writing this review has made me late for work this morning.
Other opinions on The World’s Strongest Librarian (all excellent):
Devourer of Books
It’s All About Books (Suey’s Books)
The Picky Girl
The Relentless Reader
The Well-Read Redhead