The World’s Strongest Librarian
Gotham Books, May 2013
Josh Hanagarne’s first book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, has so many different hooks it’s enough to make a publisher weep with joy. A 6’7”, weightlifting librarian? Sold. A librarian who suffers from Tourette’s? Sold. A part-Navajo, all-Mormon, Stephen-King-fanboy librarian, who lifts weights and suffers from Tourette’s? They might as well be printing money.
What’s nice about The World’s Strongest Librarian, though, is that it’s not all hook and no substance. If anything, it verges on too much substance, guiding us through just about everything that’s ever happened to Hanagarne: his childhood, his marriage, his Tourette’s, his faith, his job at the Salt Lake City Public Library, his weightlifting, and a few more odds and ends besides. There’s so much crammed in here that it makes the Dewey-inspired chapter headings seem very appropriate—because reading them sometimes feels like wandering, lost, through the stacks.
Like wandering through the stacks, though, you also occasionally happen on a real gem, and here those gems are mainly Hangarne’s assorted vignettes about growing up and living in the Mormon Church. Compared to the more visible, well-publicized representatives of his faith—Mitt Romney, say, or those chatty young fellows with the name badges—Hanagarne’s account, of both the church’s strictures and his own experience navigating them, is equal parts wry, tender, and illuminating. (It’s cheaper than Book of Mormon tickets, too.)
Hanagarne, for instance, went on his own mission, Tourette’s and all, which takes up a sizable chunk of the book’s first third. And while it’s interesting seeing how he balanced his religious duty with trying to control his tics, far more fascinating is simply the normal preparations he describes for going on a mission, in what amounts to a religious take on band camp. It’s reassuring—and somewhat humbling, in an odd way—to learn that those earnest, devout kids you meet on the subway are just as mixed up and confused as anyone else that age.
Then there’s Hanagarne’s later family life, which starts with a traditional Mormon marriage ceremony and quickly becomes a nightmare of failing to conceive a child. That takes up a sizable chunk of the book’s second third, but throughout it all Hanagarne hangs onto—at least in retrospect—a healthy critical distance and sense of humor, even as he and his wife struggle through the church’s bureaucracy. Typical of his take on things is when he attends the first of many classes required before you can even apply to be considered for a kid:
And so began our night of extreme tongue-biting. Our instructor spent the next ninety minutes talking about how grateful we should be that we were adopting. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful that we could adopt, but by the end I felt like anyone who wanted their own biological kid was a sucker. The others in the class, beaming faces every one, whooped and clapped and teared up here and there. Someone made a Family Circus reference and everyone in the room laughed. When someone makes a Family Circus reference and everyone in the room laughs, I’m in the wrong room.
Beyond the Mormonism sections, too, there are other, smaller gems, scattered throughout the book. Particularly charming is a man called Adam, a loopy combination of soldier, weight lifter, philosopher, and savant, who apparently divines the cause of Hanagarne’s debilitating tics (and the key to keeping them in check) after just one dinner together. The relationship the two men develop in the book’s final third defies summary, really, but it’s very satisfying to watch unfold.
In fact, if there are any sections that start to drag, here, it’s the ones where Hanagarne is actually at his job at the library—which become repetitive and sometimes, ironically, a little preachy. And in that sense, I suppose, the book is more hook than substance, because if you buy it looking for three hundred pages of a weightlifting librarian strutting around the stacks and histrionically tearing books in half with his bare hands, you aren’t going to find it. But if you want a candid, thoughtful examination of faith and knowledge—well: you’ll be pleasantly surprised.