The Secret Life of Stories

From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read

240 pages

February, 2016

ISBN: 9781479823611



Also available in


American Studies


Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. In 2012, he served as the President of the Modern Language Association. He is the author of several books, including Employment of English:Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1997), The Left at War (NYU Press, 2009), What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “ Bias” in Higher Education (2006), and Life as We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (1996).

All books by Michael Bérubé

How an understanding of intellectual disability transforms the pleasures of reading
Narrative informs everything we think, do, plan, remember, and imagine. We tell stories and we listen to stories, gauging their “well-formedness” within a couple of years of learning to walk and talk. Some argue that the capacity to understand narrative is innate to our species; others claim that while that might be so, the invention of writing then re-wired our brains.            
In The Secret Life of Stories, Michael Bérubé tells a dramatically different tale, in a compelling account of how an understanding of intellectual disability can transform our understanding of narrative. Instead of focusing on characters with disabilities, he shows how ideas about intellectual disability inform an astonishingly wide array of narrative strategies, providing a new and  startling way of thinking through questions of time, self-reflexivity, and motive in the experience of reading. Interweaving his own stories with readings of such texts as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, Bérubé puts his theory into practice, stretching the purview of the study of literature and the role of disability studies within it. Armed only with the tools of close reading, Bérubé demonstrates the immensely generative possibilities in the ways disability is deployed within fiction, finding in them powerful meditations on what it means to be a social being, a sentient creature with an awareness of mortality and causality—and sentience itself. Persuasive and witty, Michael Bérubé engages Harry Potter fans and scholars of literature alike. For all readers, The Secret Life of Stories will fundamentally change the way we think about the way we read.


  • "[A] concise, fresh, and deeply informed look at how we read." 

    STARRED Kirkus Reviews

  • "An enlightening examination."

    Library Journal

  • “Michael Bérubé’s son tells us that ‘in a story things have to happen for a reason’—as fine a definition of narrative as Aristotle’s. That is also true of great literary criticism: it helps us understand why things happen, in literature and in life. This generous, expansive, brilliant book has deep insights for all of us. The Secret Life of Stories is precious—for all the right reasons.”

    —Cathy N. Davidson, Distinguished Professor, Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Scien

  • "Arguing that the idea of intellectual disability has been for writers and can be for critics an extremely productive nexus for thinking through big questions about narrative and irony,  The Secret Life of Stories pushes us further, brilliantly defending the arts and humanities. Bérubé’s mind for literary analysis is a powerhouse. This little book is a rare treat.”

    —Susan M. Schweik, author of The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public

  • “Michael Bérubé has long advocated for the importance of the humanities in higher education and in public culture more generally. In The Secret Life of Stories, he puts that advocacy into practice, demonstrating to readers the multifaceted pleasures of reading. With dazzling ideas about narrative and disability, interwoven with personal stories and delightful readings of a variety of texts, The Secret Life of Stories is a joy to read. An extraordinary book.”

    —Robert McRuer, author of Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability

  • "Michael Berube's The Secret Life of Stories is that rare book that manages to speak to its specialized academic audience while imagining and addressing a much broader readership.  Berube...has crafted an accessible, if still rigorous, study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability."

    Slant Magazine

  • "[Berube has] picked out select books that I can imagine him either teaching or just reading for pleasure, identifying themes to explicate, and taking as much delight in the retelling of key episodes as he does in the deeper analysis."

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "Michael Bérubé challenges readers to rethink their understanding of both intellectual disability and narrative storytelling...argu[ing] for a new understanding of disability in literature—one that applies not to characters, but to narrative itself. [...] The Secret Life of Stories acts as a kind of intervention, demonstrating to both disability studies scholars and literary theorists more broadly the potential for reading social identities through a narrative lens, and it does so, more often than not, using children’s texts as the crux of the argument...Bérubé is one of the first scholars to think through intellectual disability in a full length academic text. That he does so using children’s literature as his foundation makes this work a first for both fields."

    The Lion and the Unicorn

  • “This volume is important for connecting disability studies with literary scholarship.


  • "Bérubé's timely and significant contributions in The Secret Life of Stories emboldens scholars of the humanities to study more deeply intellectual disability and its function in narrative."  
    "An enjoyable and thought-provoking work that will encourage continued engagement with intellectual disability." 

    Disability Studies Quarterly

  • "The Secret Life of Stories​ a reader the feeling of sitting in an engaging seminar with a​ ​witty, candid, and empathetic leader. It reviews literary disability​ ​studies in a way comprehensible to those new to the field, even as it​ ​invigorates and extends that thinking for current disability studies​​ scholars​...​.Bérubé offers therefore just the right voice to model ideas that​ ​make the case for disability as both a matter of social justice and​ ​of artistic innovation, marking the maturity of the field even as it​ ​works to move it in new directions."

    College Literature

  • "The Secret Life of Stories is certainly a landmark text in literary studies of disability and in literary criticism more generally. It will change the way you think about disability."

    Canadian Review of Comparative Literature