Diverse Book of the Month: If at Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny by Zach Anner

Welcome to July! I hope your summer is going well (or if you’re in Australia, your winter I guess?). If you’re still on the lookout for a good beach read, then let me recommend this month’s Diverse Book of the Month: If at Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny, by Buffalo’s very own Zach Anner.

(Note: I considered finding a genre other than a memoir for this month, since I just recommended one last month, but I couldn’t put off this book any longer! I was too excited to read it. I promise I’ll pick a new genre next month. :p)

Summary: You might know Zach Anner as “that hilarious and oddly inspiring guy who does the Workout Wednesday videos on YouTube.” Well, surprise! Now he’s written a hilarious and oddly inspiring memoir, about his rise to Internet stardom, his childhood, his relationships, and his life with cerebral palsy — “the sexiest of palsies,” as he likes to call it. The result is a laugh-out-loud funny, and oftentimes poignant reflection on life, love, and happiness.

What Makes This Book Diverse: For the fourth month in a row, this month’s Diverse Book is an #InOurOwnVoices book (obviously — it is a memoir, after all). This is not the story of a person living with a disability as told by an able-bodied writer. Rather, Zach tells his own story. He speaks for himself. And as a result, he shows that a human being living with a disability is not solely defined by that disability, but rather has dreams and goals, relationships and complexity, to define them as well.

Genre: Memoir/autobiography

Trigger Warnings:

  1. Mild language and adult humor
  2. Blunt talk of sex/genitals (in other words, if you’re getting this as a gift for someone, consider the age of that person before making the purchase!)

Pros:

  • If you have any sense of humor, you’re gonna laugh. A lot. I promise. If you love watching the Workout Wednesday videos, or any of Zach’s other skits, you’re gonna love this book. It’s basically like reading a script for a very long Workout Wednesday.
  • The book itself is really well-written and often insightful, and each chapter is accompanied by a clever and funny illustration by Zach’s friend and another Buffalo native, Kevin Scarborough. There are many quotable lines, both hilarious and thoughtful.
  • This memoir offers a side of Zach that you might not be too familiar with just from watching his skits. Though there is plenty of humor (including fart jokes), there are also several moments in this book where Zach shows other facets of his personality: his genuine compassion for other people, his occasional disappointment in himself, his open-mindedness. There is still the theme of hope and optimism throughout, but there are tender, more serious moments as well.
  • Of course, this is also a great and honest reflection of Zach’s life with cerebral palsy. Unlike, say, a fictional book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio, written by an able-bodied author (a great book, don’t get me wrong), this work of nonfiction is a first-hand account of what life is really like for those who live with disabilities — or at least those with cerebral palsy. And it’s not as tragic as the stereotypes and cliches might make it out to be! Sure, there are moments where Zach becomes frustrated with his wheelchair, and sometimes he admittedly feels like a burden, but there is so much more in his life to be grateful for. The reflections Zach provides are very nuanced.

Cons:

  • Zach’s sense of humor isn’t for everyone. Keep that in mind. If you like scatological humor, dumb puns, and oftentimes self-deprecating humor, then this book is for you. If not — if, say, you’re looking for something more “highbrow” or “sophisticated,” then maybe this book isn’t for you. (Although it does have its sophisticated moments, I think!) To figure out whether his sense of humor is up your alley or not, I would recommend watching his YouTube skits first.
  • Some readers on Goodreads find that, since the chapters were often out of chronological order, it was difficult to follow the timeline of Zach’s life.
  • Other readers, of course, complain that some chapters are more engaging than others. They claim the book starts off strong, but has a few boring chapters throughout. This is (like the point above) a personal preference.
  • Finally, other readers claim it’s “not as funny as the Workout Wednesday videos,” probably because the jokes are balanced out by the more reflective, thoughtful moments at the end of each chapter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some readers on Goodreads took a star off for it.

Personal Reaction: I found out about Zach through my sister, who showed me his videos and was like, “He’s from Buffalo! He went to Kenmore West! He was only a couple years ahead of me!” So when she found out he published a memoir, she went out and bought us copies (shoutout to Steph, who was heavily pregnant at the time and still waited in line to get the book at Talking Leaves, where Zach did a signing). I was really drawn to the clever title, and I loved his YouTube videos so I was excited to read it. On top of that, Steph finished it before I did and said it had her laughing out loud in public.

Though I did enjoy this book a lot, I tend to agree with the readers who expected it to be funnier. There were definitely some laugh-out-loud moments, but the end of each chapter — whether the chapter was funny or not — was dedicated to thoughtful, usually fairly serious reflection. Oftentimes the book felt more like an inspirational self-help book than a comedian’s memoir.

It is still definitely worth the read though! And there is plenty of comedy. My personal favorite chapter was the one about one of his gym teachers, which had probably the least amount of jokes in it; but it was touching, and even made me tear up a bit. And since I was raised in and still live in Buffalo, and also attended Kenmore West (some 10 or so years after Zach, but still…), it was really cool to read about Zach’s experiences growing up here.

I hope you decide to check out If at Birth You Don’t Succeed! If you do, or if you have any further questions about it, leave a comment below.

Also, feel free to recommend Diverse Books you’d like me to check out.

Happy reading!

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