Friday 11 December 2009

Special Guest Post: Josh Hanagarne, World's Strongest Librarian

Christmas has come early at Containing Multitudes. We are very proud to announce that as part of the Guest Post Ultra-Marathon that he undertook earlier this year, Josh Hanagarne, World's Strongest Librarian, has kindly agreed to write something for us.


Action Heroes and Huge Arms: Misguided Strength in American Culture
By Josh Hanagarne, World’s Strongest Librarian

Recently I watched the latest installment of the Rambo series. An increasingly elderly Rambo was hiding in the bushes, watching a group of monstrous Cambodian thugs torment some peasants by making them walk through a minefield. Finally, as always happens with good old Rambo, he had had enough.

Suddenly, one of the Cambodians gets an arrow through his leg. He screams and reaches down to grab it. Another arrow flies through his head, knocking him off his feet…and then he falls onto a land mine and explodes. Rambo emerges from the tree line and notches another arrow, his biceps flexing in slow motion with the effort.

This is a truly American moment in an action movie.

Strength, size, and fitness

Many Americans equate physical size with strength. Our image of a “strong” man is often that of a puffed-up bodybuilder posing on a stage. These bodybuilders go to great lengths to make themselves more muscular. Many of these methods are unhealthy; some are illegal, such as steroid use. And yet, many of these 300 pound monsters wouldn’t be able to do five pull-ups if their lives depended on it.

Too often, the American concept of strength is to make a body look more athletic, while actually reducing its athletic abilities. What we call “fitness” is often perceived as having abs that would be at home on the cover of a magazine.

As one of my coaches has said over and over, fitness is the ability to do a specific task. That task could be throwing a discus, swinging a hammer, pushing a truck out of the mud, or any other number of things. But real fitness is not about appearance. It is about being cultivating strength that can be used.


People were getting stronger long before the invention of fancy exercise machines. But walk into most gyms in America and your eyes will glaze over as you look at rows and rows of useless machines. Everything must be “cutting edge” and “new wave” and “hydro-this-or-that.” Argh. Nothing is necessary to get strong besides a barbell, some plates, and something to do pull-ups on.

Actually, not even that. There are people who have cultivated extraordinary strength with their own bodies alone. But it’s hard for anyone to make money doing bodyweight training, so they create products, the gyms buy them, and the people by and large accept them because they do not have the knowledge to sift the good fitness information from the bad.

The Heart of the problem

We worship action heroes instead of the guy who can do 30 pull-ups. We want to fight in the UFC instead of correcting our own posture and strengthening our bodies so that we can age gracefully. We prefer big arms to strong hearts and lungs, and six pack abs to a body that works well as a unit.

And the people at the top of the strength industry pretend that getting strong and healthy is confusing and esoteric. The normal American couldn’t possibly improve themselves without their help, and so they make a fortune selling magazines full of garbage information and supplements that do nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Rambo, Conan, The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rocky, John McClane, and GI Joe. But with the possible exception of Arnold, I don’t rely on any of them for my health needs.

Most Americans think that they need help to figure this stuff out. As long as they think that being on the cover of a magazine is the best proof that they are in shape, they’re not going to make much progress.

About the Author: Josh Hanagarne is the twitchy giant behind World’s Strongest Librarian, a blog about living with Tourette’s Syndrome, kettlebells, book recommendations, buying pants when you’re 6’8”, old-time strongman training, and much more. Please subscribe to Josh’s RSS Updates to stay in touch.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Guest Speaker: Edward Wilson

This Thursday, as part of Ian Laws' "American and Vietnam" module, novelist and Vietnam War veteran Edward Wilson (A River in May, The Envoy) will be talking about "The Vietnam War: Imagined and Remembered." All are welcome, so spread the word.

Thursday December 10, 11.00-12.00 in ARTS 01.03.

Monday 7 December 2009

News: University Life, US

Two very different portraits of university life in America. First, as part of their Pinched: Tales from an Economic Downturn series, Salon presents "I live in a van down by Duke University", Ken Ilgunas' account of his experiences, well, living in a van by Duke University:
For some, van-dwelling may conjure images of pop-culture losers forced into desperate measures during troubled times: losers like Uncle Rico from "Napoleon Dynamite," or "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Farley who'd famously exclaim, "I live in a van down by the river!" before crashing through a coffee table, or perhaps the once ubiquitous inhabitants of multicolored VW buses, welcoming strangers with complimentary coke lines and invitations to writhing, hairy, back-seat orgies.

In my van there were no orgies or coke lines, no overweight motivational speakers. To me, the van was what Kon-Tiki was to Heyerdahl, what the GMC van was to the A-Team, what Walden was to Thoreau. It was an adventure.

Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could -- in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility -- afford the unaffordable: an education.
In contrast, this week's This American Life profiles Penn State - recently crowned #1 party school in America:
So we wondered: What is it like to be at the country's top party school? This American Life producers spent a recent football weekend at Penn State to figure this out. There, we learned the definition of "fracket" (think frat plus jacket); the best way to clean up beer cans after a big party (snow shovel); and how hard it is to get college kids to drink less (really hard).
So how does these stories compare to your experiences, at home or across the pond?

Tuesday 1 December 2009

News: The Wire in the University

They say that three's a trend, but two examples will suffice as confirmation, if confirmation was needed, that HBO's The Wire is now fully ensconced within the university. First, the New York Post reported that "HBO's gritty series about life in the Baltimore ghetto, is about to become a course at Harvard [...] taught by sociology professor William J. Wilson." Then, for the Guardian, Steve Busfield produced two reports from "The Wire as Social Science Fiction?" conference hosted by the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change - "What is The Wire?" and "The Wire: taking sociology forwards?". So, everyone excited about Treme?