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THE SECRET LIFE OF STORIES by Michael Bérubé Kirkus Star


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

by Michael Bérubé

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4798-2361-1
Publisher: New York Univ.

How does the study of disability help us to understand stories?

In this important contribution to disability studies, literary scholar and critic Bérubé (Literature, Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities/Pennsylvania State Univ.; The Left at War, 2009, etc.) examines how characters with intellectual disabilities shape “the specific narrative they inhabit.” What can these characters know about this narrative? How can they serve as “a device for exploring the phenomenon of human sociality?” How can they inform our assumptions about “the ‘real’ and the ‘normal?’ ” Central to this inquiry is the overarching question of how to define intellectual disability. The author resists diagnosing characters and perpetuating stereotypes of such conditions as autism and Down syndrome, rather arguing that each character is distinct. He is skeptical, for example, about whether the theory of mindblindness—the inability to imagine that other people have minds—is useful for understanding autism, but he sees that a character’s “strategic adoption of mindblindness” may allow for “complex readings” of a narrative. Focusing on three themes—motive, time, and self-awareness—Bérubé analyzes a copious number of novels, plays, and movies. He assumes his readers’ familiarity not only with significant texts in disability studies, but also with the literary works he discusses, including the Harry Potter series, The Woman Warrior, The Sound and the Fury, A Wrinkle in Time, Life and Times of Michael K, Don Quixote, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Bérubé helpfully offers a synopsis of Philip K. Dick’s “little known and rarely studied Martian Time-Slip,” which he considers “one of Anglophone literature’s most fascinating attempts to textualize intellectual disability.” For Bérubé, considering such disability serves “as an invitation to…hyperattentiveness,” a way to reinvigorate perception, “to make objects unfamiliar, to render people imaginable.”

An academic yet concise, fresh, and deeply informed look at how we read.