6/13/2013 - Before buying a manuscript, publishers like to know where the newly published book will be shelved. If it’s a memoir, where does it belong in a bookstore or library? In the religion section? Parenting? Infertility? Fitness? Disabilities?
Knowing this, it’s a wonder that Josh Hanagarne’s memoir ever saw print, because The World’s Strongest Librarian is about all these topics, and also a searing treatise on the relevance of libraries in the digital age. Typically, a lack of focus in a book portends a lack of motivation to continue reading, but Hanagarene, who has suffered from uncontrollable tics from Tourette Syndrome since childhood, controls the story of his unpredictable life with precision, verve and valor.
It takes courage, after all, to admit to strangers not only that you sometimes involuntarily yelp like a dog that’s been kicked, but also that you once told co-workers that you landed a literary agent and book contract, without having done either, then wriggled out of one lie by telling another, saying you returned the advance because your wife got sick.
But no matter; Hanagarne is the literary equivalent of kittens on the Internet — endearing, engrossing, forgivable of any transgression, even a lifelong obsession with Stephen King. After a few chapters, we look at him like his fiancée eventually will, “the way Fern looked down on Wilbur the pig when he was in the stroller.”
E.B. White is a recurrent visitor to these pages, and Fern Zuckerman was Hanagarne’s first love; his mother walked in while he was reading Charlotte’s Web, and asked, muffling her laughter, “Can you show me which picture you were kissing?”
A precocious reader, Hanagarne was in kindergarten when his parents first realized that something was wrong with their son. Unfortunately, it was during a school play, in which Hanagarne was portraying a tree, all the while blinking incessantly, jerking his head and thrusting his neck to and fro, like a chicken. “Under the bright lights, my nose, eyes, lips, and tongue contorted as if they’d seceded from my face and were involved in a game of one-upmanship,” he writes. It was a series of simultaneous tics, the involuntary motions and sounds that are the hallmark of the neurological disorder Tourette syndrome.
Although Hanagarne’s parents soon suspected what was wrong, they didn’t take him to a doctor or subject him to scrutiny and therapies that would draw more attention to the condition, making it worse. They just let him continue to be who he was, a child increasingly obsessed with books, well loved by a tightly knit Mormon family.
Upon graduation from high school, Hanagarne became “Elder Hanagarne,” entering the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for a two-year stint as a Mormon missionary. His assignment was to preach in Spanish in Washington, D.C., not an easy task for any young man, let alone one prone to involuntary shouts and grunts and repeated self-inflicted blows to one’s face. The trials of Tourette’s eventually sent him home early, but Hanagarne’s account of the training and mindset of the Mormon missionary is fascinating, as is his honest accounting of his own doubts about his faith.
In fact, much of the tension in this story derives from Hanagarne’s spiritual journey, and the question of whether he will depart from the path tended and cherished by his family of origin and his wife.
Equally compelling is the story of how Tourette syndrome torments a life, from spectators yelling “Twitch, twitch!” at a basketball game, to Hanagarne’s decision to have Botox injections that will silence his vocal tics, but at the cost of his voice. But there is no self-pity in these pages, just an astonishment of hope and growth, even as Hanagarne struggles through relationships and jobs lost to “Misty,” the name he gives his merciless condition.
The weight lifting that Hanagarne undertakes late in the book promises some relief from Misty’s ministrations, but it’s far less essential to this tale than the cover implies. The library aspect, however, is deftly woven throughout the book, both in the chapter subheads, smartly categorized via Dewey Decimal (289.3, Mormon Missions), and the openings to each chapter, which reveal a snippet of what it’s like to be a librarian with Tourette’s. (After a checkered employment history, Hanagarne found his calling at the Salt Lake City Public Library, which alarmingly appears to be populated with the homeless, the deranged, and the copulating.)
This is the best kind of memoir, an honest one, not about the big things in life, but the little. The title misleads, just a little. This could also have been called “The World’s Most Skeptical Mormon” or “Tourette’s: The World’s Most Irritating Affliction.” It’s really just the story of a life — tangled, bruising, beautiful — the rough parts sanded tolerable by family and books. A