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Q&A | February 27, 2014

Rene Denfeld: IMG Powell’s Q&A: Rene Denfeld

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The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family


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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 peoples heads. Mostly out.

“You tall bigot!”

I stopped and wondered if these two words had ever been put next to each other. The odds were astronomical; even someone with my primitive math skills knew this. I laughed, which didnt help the situation, which was this: A guy wearing a jaunty red neckerchief had walked by the reference desk, yelling about the “motherfucking Jews and lesbians on the Supreme Court.” I had asked him to lower his voice and voilà! Now I was a tall bigot…the worst kind of all.

“What are you, some kind of Jew?” he sputtered. Ive never seen someone so enraged. I wondered what hed do if he knew Id been raised Mormon.

Maybe he was mad because he couldnt find the anti-Semitism section. The library has a robust collection of what I call non-cuddly hate lit. This is one of my favorite things about working here: If you believe censorship is poison, here lies paradise. We have sections on anti-Mormonism, anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, anti-God, anti-feminism, pro-gay...theres something to offend everyone.

Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the Salt Lake City Public Library, won numerous awards for his vision and technical derring-do. He thought big, appropriately, because a building that can hold 500,000 books is enormous. The number of items circulating each hour is rivaled only by the number of people napping in the corners. But nothing is as impressive as the way the building looks. I work in a beautiful building made almost entirely of glass. Seen from the air, it looks like the Nike Swoosh if it got frightened and began to cower.

An older librarian—one of the few other males—once said to me, “Whatever we deal with, coming here is always a visual reward.” This statement is poetic, accurate, and maddening. Because most of the time it feels like people show up just to fight about something with total strangers like me. Which is fine. Im not here for the good company.

One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette Syndrome.* The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones; the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally cant sit still. Who cant shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.

A patron recently took exception to a series of throat clearings I couldnt suppress. As he approached, I put on my customer service smile and readied myself for one of those rare, mind-blowing reference transactions that I hear about from other librarians. Instead this man said, “If youre going to walk around honking like a royal swan, you dont belong in the library. Im going to call security. Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.”

I stood up. Im six feet seven inches tall, and I weigh 260 pounds. “Is it you?” Im not confrontational, but I dont lose many staring contests. Im good at looming when its helpful. He walked away.

I also work here because I love books, because Im inveterately curious, and because, like most librarians, Im not well suited to anything else. As a breed, were the ultimate generalists. Ill never know everything about anything, but Ill know something about almost everything and thats how I like to live.

Earlier today a young woman asked me to help her find a book about how to knit lingerie. This is the sort of question library school recruiters should feature in their dreary PowerPoint presentations, not claptrap about how were the “stewards of democracy.” They would definitely attract more males to the profession. When I arrived in my library department two years ago, the alpha male was a sixty-six-year-old woman.

On our way to the lingerie section—yes, the official subject heading is Lingerie, call number 646.42—I tripped over another young woman who was lying on the floor beneath a blanket, nestled between two rows of law books. Im thirty-five years old and it both relieves and elates me to know I can still be surprised.

“Im sleeping here!” she yelled.

Im rarely at a loss for words outside the library. But within its walls Im required to form sentences that no logical person should ever have to utter, for instance, “You cant sleep on the floor at the library under your blanket.”

“I dont snore!” she said, gripping her blanket with both hands, as if I might snatch it away.

“Im sure you dont,” I said. “Thats not the point.”

“Well, theres no other point!”

This was an occasion when my need to be right didnt feel that important. I made a phone call. Security interrupted her derailed slumber and led her out of the building. And stay out, I pictured them yelling, tossing the blanket after her, where it would be swept into traffic by a sudden gust of wind.

I felt a twinge of envy. I couldnt remember the last time Id taken a nap. Ill admit to often feeling sleepy in the library. Most of the time, in fact. The building was constructed with the ability to save power and warm itself, so the glass walls make it difficult to find an area that isnt bathed by soporific sunbeams. I briefly considered lying down on the floor between Blacks Law Dictionary and the Morningstar investment guides. Someone would probably report me, but I might be imposing enough to buy myself a power nap. Then someone came to the desk for help and the plan ended before it began.

I really want someone to ask me a question that is not “How many times can I fall asleep in here before I get kicked out?” I really want this building to serve the purpose for which it was intended—as a breeding ground for curiosity.

I work on Level 3. If youre on my floor youre probably looking for information about Bigfoot; the healing powers of crystals, self-help, or psychology; youre trying to expunge something from your record and need the law section; you need to lose weight; you heard that people make money on the Internet; you need to summon some pixies; you want to get into hat-making; you cant sight your rifle; youre sick of the Jews; youre sick of the people who wont shut up about being sick of the Jews; youre looking for a Bible; or youre cramming for the SAT. Unless youre just looking for a place to sleep, in which case Id direct you to any of the comfortable chairs laid out around the perimeter, out of my direct line of sight. And if youre hooking up with your drug dealer, thats usually conducted in the restrooms.

Later this morning, something actually happened that didnt require me to wake someone up or tell him to watch porn at home. An African American man asked me if the Hutu tribe in Rwanda had any Jewish ancestry. What a fascinating question. We started hunting through the librarys incredibly expensive, underpromoted, and underused research databases. After an hour we realized that the question was bigger than we could complete during one session, but he had enough leads to pursue on his own. Wed forgotten that the rest of the world existed as we leaned over my computer and hurried to and fro in the stacks grabbing books.

As always, many patrons wanted to research their genealogy. I always wonder why. Were they trying to discover whether they might have an inheritance coming to them? Being kept from them? Researching the people who led to their own genetic impairments? I have Tourette Syndrome because of some combination of my parents crazy innards. His genes met hers and said, “Hey, lets get stupid!” I cant blame them for not knowing any better. If theres a memo out there that says Never cross a Navajo and a Mormon or youll create a twitchy baby who will be a burden forever, they never got it.

At lunch, many of the librarians lurched up to the staff room and fell onto chairs and couches with their books and magazines. Librarians as a rule move about as well as the Tin Man did before Dorothy brought him the oilcan. Their heads often sit so far forward on their necks that they look like woodpeckers frozen in mid-peck. Their shoulders are rounded from answering the phone, typing, eating, and reading. Their hands at rest inevitably rotate into the typing position. They spend so much time looking down at computers and into books and talking down to people from their tall desks that its become an unnatural effort to raise their eyes to make eye contact during conversation.

I move quite well, partly because during my lunch break, I go downstairs to the librarys diminutive fitness room, wrap my hands in thin, well-seasoned leather strips to protect them, and bend horseshoes. Im also working on the goal of deadlifting six hundred pounds, but I do that outside the library walls. The sound of six hundred pounds hitting the ground is serious. Dropping that much weight in the basement of the library would echo up to the top floor and wake everyone up. When I hit a snag, I call my coach, a man named Adam.

Adam is a former air force tech sergeant, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and the sort of hard-ass who describes poor haircuts as “a lack of personal excellence,” even though his hair is currently poufy and awful and makes him look like a Dragon Ball Z character.

He has the entire poem, all sixteen lines, of “Invictus” by William Henley tattooed on his left arm.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

More on him later.

After lunch a teenage boy with chains crisscrossing his pants slumped into the library, limping as if hed stepped into a bear trap. He needed some books for school, he told me, “Books that arent all gay and shit.” Id love to have a sign demarcating that section. We probably need another one for the child abuse books. The teenagers love that stuff. One of our most popular books is a memoir about child abuse: A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer. I tried to read it once and was too unsettled by the second chapter to ever pick it up again. But the teens cant seem to get enough of it.

I can always tell the kids whove been sent to the library to find a book from some teachers boring reading list. They trudge in with their eyes on the carpet, breathing hard with annoyance. Many of these kids will do anything to avoid talking to us. Many of these kids have never said anything to me besides, “Yeah, I have to read this book called Johnny Tremain.” Kids who want to read Pelzers book practically jump on top of my desk in their eagerness to read about a child being mistreated. We should probably just give up and order a hundred more copies of A Child Called “It.”

After helping the kid find the not-gay section, I watched another patron vomit into a garbage can.

“Pardon me, sir,” I said. “Could you make it to the restroom?”

“Im fine here,” he said.

I did lots of dusting. I focused on the tops of shelves that only the very tall can see. I helped a delightful elderly woman with an unidentifiable accent create an e-mail account on the public computers. When I asked her what she liked to read—I cant figure out how to quit asking this question of total strangers—she said, “I enjoy the nakedest of romances.”

There was some excitement in the afternoon. We had a break in a two-year-old mystery. Someone has been waging a war against the harmless 133s. Occultism. Crystals. Sylvia Browne. Summoning pixies safely—yes, there is apparently a wrong way to do it. Energy fields. Enneagrams. Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. Angels. Satan. These books have been vanishing.

One day a shelver spotted a shelf that was wrenched open at the bottom. In the hollow underneath it was a bunch of Wicca books and the timeless classic Witch in the Bedroom: Proven Sensual Magic. When we looked under the other shelves, we found a couple hundred books that had been hidden. We pretended to be outraged—this was censorship!—but it was hilarious. I wanted to know who was doing it, and how.

When we put the books back on the shelves, they vanished again. Replacement copies disappeared as well, sometimes within an hour. Id taken to patrolling the perimeter every ten minutes, determined to apprehend the crooks and thank them for entertaining me so well—and to remind them that there were a few Sylvia Browne books on the shelves that theyd missed. We found no one.

But today a shelver saw two men raising the bottom shelves! They escaped. We investigated and found dozens of missing books. Now were trying to figure out how to entice the shelf-secreters back and trap them. I suggested leaving some books about Stonehenge and the Mayan calendar strewn about as bait. I long to shake the hand of the man or woman who scuttled Accepting the Psychic Torch out of sight, out of mind, out of reach, in the dust below the bookshelves.

I cant imagine the monks in the libraries of yore dealing with this nonsense. Waking people up, encouraging them to view porn, vomit, and procure drugs elsewhere. Sure, those monks had to condemn Jews and lesbians, but they didnt attend patron education workshops because there were no patrons, only themselves. Beyond the occasional visit from a grand inquisitor, they were left alone to use the libraries as they were meant to be used.

The purpose of libraries—to organize and provide information—hasnt changed. Theyre billed as the Poor Mans University. (Many librarians also bill them as the Poor Mans Day Care or the Poor Mans Urinal.) I love working here because the reasons behind libraries are important to me.

The public library contains multitudes. And each person who visits contains multitudes as well. Each of us is a library of thoughts, memories, experiences, and odors. We adapt to one another to produce the human condition.

Libraries have shaped and linked all the disparate threads of my life. The books. The weights. The tics. The harm Ive caused myself and others. Even the very fact that Im alive. How I handle my Tourettes. Everything I know about my identity can be traced back to the boy whose parents took him to a library in New Mexico even before he was born.

The library taught me that I could ask any questions I wanted and pursue them to their conclusions without judgment or embarrassment.

And its where I learned that not all questions have answers.

Excerpted from THE WORLDS STRONGEST LIBRARIAN by Josh Hanagarne. Copyright (c) 2013 by Josh Hanagarne. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.


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The Loopy Librarian, May 7, 2013 (view all comments by The Loopy Librarian)
Amazing and Inspiring! Josh is a natural storyteller with a quick wit that comes through in his writing. That he would choose to be a librarian (a place for quiet and stillness) when he struggles with one of the worst cases of Tourette's that one could have is a testament to his determination to master his disorder rather than have the disorder control him. He's 6 foot 7 inches tall but a self-professed bookworm. He's not at all what you would picture when you think of a librarian which makes him something of an enigma. His story is all the more fascinating for it.

He writes in a series of entries headed by Dewey decimal numbers designating the subject area. Very clever. Rather than a running narrative, the book switches back and forth through stories of library patrons (you may be surprised by the insanity with which librarians sometimes have to deal), growing up with Tourette's, and living out his Mormon faith. He also includes other interesting anecdotes about dating, becoming a father, strength training, etc. It was an unusual writing style, but it worked.

I stayed up until 2AM to finish this book. I was never bored. Josh has lived such a fascinating life and met some rather extraordinary people. He is also refreshingly and brutally honest. He does not make himself out to be a hero, and he gives his family most of the credit for where he is today. His battle with Tourette's rages on, but his strength training has helped him to cope. As a reader, I couldn't help but get caught up in his story. As a librarian, I related. As a bi-polar, I related. I've even taken some of the same medications that he has. But mostly, I felt a connection as a fellow human being trying to make sense of a sometimes nonsensical world. I think Josh says it well when he notes that not even libraries hold the answer to every question. Not every question has an answer.

Ideas to discuss:

Importance of Faith
Dealing with Tourette's or other conditions

Words I liked:

Hoary Vassal

Conversations to strike up:

Hardships you've had to overcome
The value of libraries and literacy
The support of family

I highly recommend this book! It truly is an inspirational, educational, and humorous read.

In compliance with FTC guidelines, please note that I received a free advance reading copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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Product Details

A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family
Hanagarne, Josh
Biography - General
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
9.54 x 5.74 x 1.05 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Featured Titles » Biography
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Medical Biographies
Health and Self-Help » Psychology » General Disorders
Reference » Bibliography and Library Science
Reference » Bibliography and Library Science » Administration and Management

The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family Used Hardcover
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Product details 288 pages Gotham - English 9781592407873 Reviews:
"Review" by , “Josh Hanagarne is a remarkable man….In this moving memoir, Hanagarne shows his readers what it is like to live with a severe form of Tourette's and how, with patience, love, and support from his family, he was able to build a rich, full life. Throughout, his optimism and amusing, self-deprecating sense of humor shine through. An excellent and uplifting story on accepting and coping with lifelong disabilities, of particular interest to librarians.”
"Review" by , “Wildly quirky memoir of facing down his ferocious Tourette's tics…Hanagarne's account manages to be very gag-full and tongue-in-cheek…highly engaging….Reconciled with Tourette's, Hanagarne never let the disease get the upper hand.”
"Review" by , "A sumptuous read, as funny, erudite, and energizing as a chat with a conversational intellectual, as engrossing and moving as a medical detective drama….The book leaves all of us who've read it feeling a little stronger and brighter ourselves."
"Review" by , “Just like the library has every funny, beautiful, moving, wise story you'd ever need in it, so too does this book. This is not just your ordinary memoir: it is a soaring, inspiring elegy to the small and big miracles of parenthood and friendship and marriage and how they triumph over the not so small challenges of life. It is a perfect, perfect gem of a read, unputdownable, unforgettable, unmatchable.”
"Review" by , "Josh Hanagarne inspires in his pursuit to break the shackles of Tourette's Syndrome and live his life to the fullest, as a husband, a father and a librarian. Insightful, heart-wrenching and delightfully humorous, The World's Strongest Librarian is a triumph!" Cory MacLauchlin, author of Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and The Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.
"Review" by , “As a gym rat myself, I can attest to the power of hurling one's sinews against heavy stuff that keeps wanting to slam you back into the floor. The difference with Josh Hanagarne is he has lifted much weightier impediments — Tourette's, loneliness, geekitude, and the calling to be a writer. That he is, and a talent to savor, to emulate, and to be inspired by.”
"Review" by , "Josh Hanagarne has an astonishing story to tell, and he does so with insight, humor, grace, and wonder. All human beings suffer and struggle. Through the lens of his own miraculous experiences, Mr. Hanagarne illuminates the path to joy and the infinite possibilities of transcendence."
"Review" by , “A truly interesting, engaging, and fascinating memoir.”
"Review" by , “Josh's special struggles to deal with his own doubts, Tourette's and society give his journey a patina of honesty, resilience, and a flavor of humanity that truly inspires. Josh has a unique voice and I was privileged to read and be empowered by his story.”
"Review" by , “A funny, profound, emotionally generous, and wonderfully human story.”
"Review" by , “Everything about this book is big: certainly it is the story of a 6' 7" librarian with Tourette's, but it is also the quest for how we know, how we feel and how we love...without reservation. I found it impossible to put down; save a day to read this.”
"Review" by , “Josh Hanagarne is a giant of a man and a giant of a writer….This guy is the real freaking deal in a very fresh and exciting way."
"Review" by , “Witty and upbeat voice…fun (and inspiring) reading.”
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