'World's Strongest Librarian' does battle with Tourette's syndrome

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 4:47 p.m. MDT

Librarian Josh Hanagarne works at the Salt Lake City Main Library on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Hanagarne, who is batting Tourette syndrome, has written a memoir, "The World's Strongest Librarian."

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Librarians are typically quiet and bookish, not generally known for feats of strength, or noise. But a Salt Lake librarian shatters the stereotype.

Josh Hanagarne interrupts the quiet of the library, sometimes every few seconds, with whoops & grunts, other noises that sound like sneezes and hiccups, and even the sounds of his teeth loudly snapping together.

"My reality is that my body does whatever it wants, generally in spite of whatever I want," Hanagarne said.

Controlling that body is at the center of his new memoir, "The World's Strongest Librarian," a tome attracting national attention to him and a chronicle of the condition that also gets him noticed by patrons at the Salt Lake Main Library.

Hanagarne's involuntary sounds, accompanied by physical gyrations and spasms, are known as "tics." They're the hallmarks of Tourette's syndrome, an ailment Hanagarne has lived with since he was 8 years old.

"The World's Strongest Librarian" portrays his long-running wrestling match with the troubling disorder. It's also a coming-of-age story filled with comic incident, brimming with insights about Utah culture and, yes, the joys of a public library.

"Eeeef! Snap! Fewww! When I'm talking I'm fine," Hanagarne said between spasms of hiccuping and snapping noises. "That is one of the challenges of this place is that I don't get to spend the whole day chatting."

His tics are often worse in staff-only areas of the library when he is not interacting with patrons.

"It also helps that I work with nice people who don't tell me to shut up. I almost bought them all headphones for Christmas, but they said I don't need to.

"Wooop! Snap! Ooof!"

He can sometimes suppress the tics. But he pays a price later with even more severe ones.

"The urge doesn't go away," Hanagarne said. "If you think about it like a sneeze, it kind of always feels like a sneeze on the brink. Yeah, you can hold it in, but you let a sneeze out to have some relief. It's like a sneeze located in a million different places."

Pointing first at his own shoulder and then at the ceiling, Hanagarne said, "It's here. It's here. It's in my voice box."

He divides his time between serving patrons at an information desk, shelving books in the nonfiction section and working at a computer in staff-only areas.

But most days he finds time to visit an employee exercise room where something interesting happens. Hanagarne has developed an impressive repertoire involving feats of strength. He can dead-lift nearly 600 pounds and he can even bend frying pans and heavy nails.

Hanagarne discovered weightlifting at age 20. After the anxiety and despair of his teenage years, the workouts helped him find hope.

"When I would go to lift, that was the only time I felt I was actually in control of my body," Hanagarne said. "I was weak as a kitten. But I could make my body do what I wanted it to for awhile because, while I lifted, the tics would go away."

He created a blog called "The World's Strongest Librarian" and he frequently speaks to classes and community groups. His message? Life is better if you latch on to something like weightlifting that gives you direction and a way to measure your progress.

His book is a poignant story of hope, wrapped in a born-librarian's delight over books, and witty observations about life. But don't expect a completely happy ending.

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