Maximum Shelf: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

My editor recently asked me if I’d like to put together my first Maximum Shelf for them, and said she had just the book in mind for me: The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne. (My father found this a hilarious expression of what my editor thinks of me. I’ll let you work that one out. I haven’t.) I was thrilled; and I loved the book. Because this would make for an extra long blog post, I’ve split the Max Shelf issue into two posts for you, so please enjoy my review today and my interview with the gracious & funny Josh tomorrow.


Josh Hanagarne, blogger at The World’s Strongest Librarian, “might be the only person whose first three-hundred-pound bench press was accompanied by the Recorded Books production of Don Quixote.” This is just one of his remarkable singularities. A gentle giant who tears phone books for fun, at 6’7″ he tends to catch the eye at the Salt Lake City Public Library, even when his Tourette Syndrome is not acting up. His memoir explores these contradictions and oddities, and his remarkable journey from idyllic childhood to painfully jerky young adulthood to a contented family and work life.

Hanagarne had a happy childhood, beloved by his mother, an incorrigible prankster and devout Mormon, and his devoted, irreverent bear of a father. He grew up in libraries, a passionate bookworm disturbed only by the tics that began in first grade but would go undiagnosed until high school (although his father suspected Tourette’s from the beginning). By young adulthood, they were not only embarrassing but violent and debilitating. He would eventually suffer a hernia from the force of his involuntary shouting tics, and his larger movements resulted in injury to himself and chaos in his immediate surroundings. After high school he spent years trying numerous cures, in and out of college, working various jobs and struggling with depression. Lifting weights at the gym stilled the tics somewhat, and for a while he got regular Botox injections in his vocal cords to quiet the shouts and whoops. During that time he met and married a lovely Mormon folklorist named Janette. For the first eight months of marriage, he couldn’t speak to her above a whisper.

Although deeply in love, the atmosphere of Josh and Janette’s story early in their marriage remains clouded. For years they try to get pregnant. Janette suffers two miscarriages and they are harshly rejected by the Mormon Church as adoptive parents. Josh continues to tussle with Tourette’s. For a short time, he finds a position as assistant special educator quite satisfying, not least because his tics become unremarkable in a room full of special needs. But he soon leaves that job, because he seeks challenge: crucially, he aspires to overcome Tourette’s, to beat his tics into submission. Pondering what might present the greatest challenge to a man who can’t keep quiet, Josh is drawn to the quietest place he knows, a place that has always offered succor and delight. He gets a job as a clerk in the library and begins a master’s program in library science. And a key piece of marital bliss is finally achieved when Janette delivers a healthy baby boy named Max.

Josh continues to battle Tourette’s in the gym, discovers kettlebell lifting along the way, and makes a new friend in Adam Glass, a former Air Force tech sergeant and strongman: he bends wrenches and horseshoes and tears decks of cards and phone books. Josh’s story takes an inspiring turn as the twitchy librarian and the foul-mouthed strongman gradually develop a friendship; as Adam helps Josh build strength, together they also begin to understand and subdue the tics. He finds Adam a little strange, and the explanation for his social awkwardness is also what makes him the perfect mentor for overcoming Tourette’s: Adam is autistic.

The adult Josh Hanagarne who relates his story is content and stable, happily married, thrilled to be a father to four-year-old Max, and working full-time at the Salt Lake City Public Library. As he relates his stranger-than-fiction story, he intersperses present-day anecdotes from a workplace that he wryly notes is rife with strange and occasionally smelly patrons and events. He muses eloquently and powerfully about the role of libraries in society, and their future possibilities. Throughout his life and this book, Josh struggles with his Mormon faith, as he sets off on the expected mission and faces myriad challenges in school, work, marriage and parenthood. In telling a story about family, church and Tourette Syndrome, he always circles back to libraries and to books, in many charming literary references. And always central to Josh’s story is his love of family. From his loving parents and exceptionally close siblings through the clear delight Josh finds in marriage and fatherhood, he stresses the inestimable gift of a loving family.

Josh’s memoir is thoughtful, heartfelt, often hilarious– and unsparingly honest. He is not proud of every moment in his own past, but he shares nonetheless. The image of the man today who wrote this book and who works in a large branch of a public library in a large city is that of a serious yet funny, mature, loving family man, and this image is only partly at odds with the earlier, less secure young man we come to know in these pages. The younger Josh was unsure and unstable, and the author is more comfortable in his own skin. But both have tics, and stories to tell.

This review originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 9 minutes of calm.

Tomorrow: I interview The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Released by Amber Polo

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author, who very astutely offered me dog treats with it for my two babes and therefore got in the door easily. Great trick, Amber!

releasedLiberty Cutter is a librarian recently returned to her hometown of Shipsfeather, Ohio, having taken the position of public library Director. She’s there to learn more about her own history and that of the town; ever since her mother abandoned her at age 5 in the children’s section of the local library, she’s had precious little information about her background and family. (She was raised by four law librarian aunts who apparently lacked any sense of fun.) Shipsfeather is a strange place: no one in town wants to talk about the past. As the book opens, Liberty dashes off to a massive fire that destroys her library. City officials are less than helpful, but she ends up reopening in an beautiful old school building, with the help of the friendly townspeople and her excellent staff. It turns out that her new library building was already occupied! Underground from the old Academy lives a pack of dogshifters, who it turns out are humankind’s original librarians, and are pleasantly disposed towards Liberty. And it’s a good thing, because the werewolves are the enemies of librarians everywhere – book burners, no less! I’ll mostly quit here for the sake of spoilers, but: Liberty makes new friends, and the library gets a fresh and healthier new start.

The first in a series, Released is great fun, if you’re a fan of books, dogs, or libraries (preferably all three). It does rely heavily on the reader’s appreciation of these framing elements, but this doesn’t concern me overmuch, because I doubt many people pick up such a book who aren’t. Shipsfeather is full of library references: “thank Dewey,” Liberty thinks, when things go right; certain characters talk in “Dewey-speak” (substituting Dewey numbers for nouns). This idyllic small town has far more enthusiastic librarians and library patrons than seems realistic, but again, we’re happy to forgive. The dogshifters in the basement are named and described by breed (and their country of origin plays an important role, too), in another instance of casual indulgence in our mutual interests. The chihuahua is, of course, my favorite character (and he shares a name with a major Mexican beer!).

There is plenty to like: the fantasy is clever and cute, the characters are likeable in their eccentricities, and again, there’s plenty of dog- and library-play. There is some romance, of the swooning and weak-kneed, he’s-so-handsome-and-strong variety. It’s all “clean.” I could make a few criticisms, too. The plot and fantasy realm is not terribly complex; this is a light-hearted romp, not a world-building feat. The dialogue can be a little tedious and unreal. Phrases like “even so” don’t feel right in dialogue, and likewise the lack of contractions: “I will do everything I can” in informal speech. The humor is heavy on the puns – not a problem for every reader, but noteworthy.

Released is easy-reading fun, not crafted in high literary style but a worthwhile jaunt. I enjoyed it, despite a few stylistic flaws, and found myself thinking about the sweet characters and the sweet little world of Shipsfeather as I fell asleep one night this week; and they made me smile. And that’s always worth a few points.

Rating: 5 liver treats.

Thanks, Amber, for sending me a copy of your book.

Teaser Tuesdays: Released by Amber Polo

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers!


Here’s a strange book for you, about libraries and librarians, and werewolves and dog-shifters (those are the good guys). It’s a little paranormal, a little romance, a little fantasy, and a lot of candy for the book- and dog-lovers. Here’s a cute thought for the day:

She read aloud the Alphonse Karr quotation on the back, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they are the same. She didn’t want change; she wanted the status quo, just better.

This made me laugh, as it’s so apt. I don’t want it all; I just want everything I want right now. 🙂 I’m enjoying Released so far.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


I have discovered a strange and wonderful new book: a memoir by a Mormon strongman librarian with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.

To me, this beginning establishes the author’s voice, which will be evocative as well as irreverent. One of Hanagarne’s strengths is that he communicates often serious content with a wry twist that sometimes had me giggle out loud. Aside from which, the opening setting of this book is a library, and I am a sucker for that, as I bet are some of you.

I’m sorry to tell you that this book won’t be out until May! But be sure to look out for it then.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Chrome’s library extension for Amazon

Coworker Liz does it again. I have long been a Mozilla Firefox user, but (gulp) am finally switching to Google Chrome for my internet browser, and here’s why: Chrome’s new Library Extension for Amazon.

The concept is this: when you look up a book on Amazon, you have the option – once you have this extension set up – to see at the same time whether that same book is available at your local library.* For instance (after buzzing right through Lost in a Good Book), I am looking for the third Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde:
New Picture2
And I would normally have two tabs open in my browser, so that I could search Amazon and my local library at the same time. But now:
New Picture
Look at that. My local HPL has me covered – and all in one browser tab. Thanks, HPL! And thanks, Google!

Now, it remains to be seen whether this will continue to fly for Amazon, an organization which likes its profits. If Amazon were to suspect any drop in business I imagine they’d find a way to keep libraries off their website. But we can hope – and enjoy it while we can.

*Once your local library is set up in the extension. Ours wasn’t, so Liz emailed “the guy” who does such things and the next day, there we were. So it might be just that easy – at least while the traffic remains manageable for “the guy”, which, I have no idea.

library visit: the Julia Ideson building; and Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman by William French

My journey began thusly: having decided to visit the Gila National Forest with Husband this summer, I was doing some research on the website (above) relating to our trip: camping, weather, trails, maps, sights to see, what to expect. I was very pleased to find a suggested reading list (scroll to the bottom). Like many avid readers, I often like to do some reading relating to a place I plan to visit.

This reading list consists of some travel books, the Leopold which I was already interested in, and others that I either began searching for or decided I didn’t need. And then there was this one: Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by William French. I took a look at my local library’s catalog, without much luck; and then I looked on Amazon and figured out why: this book is long out of print, with used copies running well upwards of $100. Well, I don’t think I want the book that badly; I don’t really know if I want it at all. But I’m interested, because the Houston Public Library does house a copy in the Texas Room at the Houston Metropolitan Resource Center at the Julia Ideson Building.

This had me intrigued enough to pay a visit. I hadn’t been to the Ideson Building in a few years, since I was a library student and toured with my mother. It’s a lovely space. For 50 years, from 1926 to 1976, this building served as Houston’s central library; its namesake was Houston’s head librarian from 1904-1945. In 1976, the Jones Building was opened on the same block, and today that’s our main library, and the one I grew up with; it’s some 5-6 stories tall, and I grew up with the children’s library in the basement, although now it gets a sunnier treatment (following a recent renovation). The Jones Building is, in my opinion, a fine library in its own right, but the Ideson Building is really lovely. Please do go check out some beautiful photographs (and renderings) provided by The Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners. You can read more about the building and very recently completed and so well-deserved renovation here.

So what of the book? Well, I entered the Texas Room, which bibliophiles would recognize as a classic reading room in the days before Kindle. I was asked to lock my purse in a locker – no pens, water bottles, or theft opportunities allowed! – and then I waited in this lovely space while a librarian fetched the book I wanted from the closed stacks. There were accountant-style lamps on the tables, but I sat near a window and didn’t need one. I was given William French’s Recollections, in two volumes, bound in what I assume was a custom book box, and I gave it a look.

lovely reading room

As it turns out, the book itself was not the most impressive part of this visit. I spent a little time with it, and encountered a few funny or poignant anecdotes. But each volume being some 300 pages long, I knew I wasn’t interested in making the commitment with a book I couldn’t carry around myself. It is a memoir by a Dublin-born man who traveled to the American Southwest in the late 1800’s and had adventures there, and I read about ranching, local politics, tracking and hunting bears, frontier weddings, and more; apparently French was a friend to the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy, which is part of what has made his memoir of some enduring interest. (Not so much enduring interest, however, that this book is still in print.) I think it has some entertainment value, but is not so well-written or sensational to make for popular reading; clearly it has historical value to the time and place it represents, which is why it’s on the Gila’s list of suggested reading. How it ended up in the Texas Room is a little mysterious, as the librarian I asked said that the collection mostly covers not Texas, but more specifically Houston-related resources; I asked how this book (which mostly covers New Mexico) ended up there, and she guessed that perhaps its donor was somehow related to Houston. No worries, of course; I’m glad this hard-to-find book was available to me to touch and read in such a lovely setting.

I don’t regret the books I’ve read, but those I did not read

I work in a library that focuses mostly on fiction, mostly on bestsellers, and mostly on recent releases. Recently released bestselling fiction is the big hit, although we certainly carry exceptions to each category, too. I get asked a lot about books. I get asked for advice on what a patron should read – this is the most common and the most natural and appropriate; I’ve taken courses and read books about “reader’s advisory” service, which means advising what books a person might enjoy, based on what they’ve enjoyed (or not) in the past. (I still consider myself woefully inadequate, mostly because we can’t read them all! But I try – and I’m familiar with what’s expected, with what reader’s advisory entails, even when I can’t perform.) Almost as frequently, I get asked about what I am reading, what I like to read, what I’ve read recently. This can be a tricky one. It should be easy – I should be able to answer honestly, and that should often lead to a fun, stimulating conversation, even if our reading tastes differ. (Which is fine! I like to say, how boring would it be if we all liked the same things? And how long the lines would be, too!) But sometimes I get some strange questions or strange responses. Today, when asked what the last book I read was, I answered truthfully: The Taming of the Shrew. I was rewarded with deep, uncontrollable belly laughter as the patron stumbled out wiping his eyes. I don’t entirely understand. Carry on, sir.

I also get asked difficult questions, like, “which Christian fiction author do you like to read?” The truthful answer is none; the diplomatic answer is “Jan Karon and Karen Kingsbury are very popular. What are you looking for? Who have you enjoyed in the past?” It always makes me smile bemusedly when people ask me, “do you read?” (I’m sure there is a librarian out there who doesn’t, but really.) Or another favorite, when a big batch of hot-off-the-presses, brand-new books arrive: “have you read all of these?” To which I reply, “no. I put them out for you all, first.” But sometimes I can’t resist grabbing a brand new one, I confess. The Reversal and The Paris Wife both came straight home with me, for example. And sometimes I get to read a gally before publication, as I did with Chevy Stevens’ Never Knowing (review yet to come, via Shelf Awareness). But mostly, my access to our library’s new books is limited in the same way my patrons’ access is: by availability. Also, I’m very busy, have lots of reading to do, and try to prioritize their access more highly than my own.

I do get excited about a lot of the books that I buy for the library. And I do get to read a lot of them, but I miss more than I hit. By how many? Well, I got curious. Out of 2011 book orders to date, I have read (in no particular order):

**Some of these were among the best I’ve read this year, too.

But on the other hand, I wanted to read:

  • Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante
  • Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital, David Ansell
  • Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovitch
  • The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Daniel J. Sharfstein
  • The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America, Julie Winch
  • The Story of Beautiful Girl, Rachel Simon
  • The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, Alice Ozma
  • Ruby Red, Kerstin Gier
  • The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
  • Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
  • I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle
  • Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, David S. Reynolds
  • Georgia Bottoms, Mark Childress
  • One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde
  • Mr. Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt
  • Oracle of Stamboul, Michael David Lukas
  • Cleaning Nabokov’s House, Leslie Daniels
  • Crime: Stories, Ferdinand von Schirach

…that’s a lot of books. I may still make it to several of these – I have my heart set on County, for example. (I want to continue my reading of history and historical fiction in Chicago and the northeast, as in The Devil in the White City, Newspaper Titan, Around the World on Two Wheels and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.) But others will just fall off my wish list gradually for lack of attention – or move up it, if someone else raves. This is the joyful problem of the avid reader and professional librarian: so many options, so little time.

I know I’m not alone! What has passed you by this year that you’re still hoping to find time for? Or, what DID you find time for that turned out really, really well? Best of 2011? (We’re talking published in 2011 here for now. My best of 2011 [published in] are those asterisked, above.) Anything really terrible? (I found Gone with a Handsomer Man very disappointing.) Please do share. Tell me I’m not alone. 🙂

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