Excerpt of The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore
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A great many questions about life and death have no answers, including, notably, these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when you're dead? These questions are ancient; they riddle myths and legends; they lie at the heart of every religion; they animate a great deal of scientific research. No one has ever answered them and no one ever will, but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask. That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.
"How did the game of life begin?," though, isn't an existential question; it's a historical one, and you can find answers to historical questions in libraries, museums, and archives, like the U.S. Patent Office. "I, MILTON BRADLEY, ... have invented a new Social Game," Bradley wrote on his patent application. "In addition to the amusement and excitement of the game, it is intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice." It was a new game, but the genealogy of the Checkered Game of Life stretches back centuries and across oceans. Bradley's invention is descended from a family of ancient Southeast Asian games - members of a genus called "square board race games" - whose common ancestor is probably over a thousand years old. Nepal has the "game of karma"; Tibet has the "game of liberation." In India, Jn?a?na Chaupa?r, the game of knowledge, is played much like the Checkered Game of Life: land on a virtue and you get to climb a ladder toward the god Vishnu; land on a vice and you're swallowed by a snake. Life has its ups and it has its downs. Then you die, the snake spits you out, and you start again.
In the nineteenth century, games from the farthest reaches of the British Empire and beyond found their way into middle-class Victorian parlors. A Persian game of life was collected, probably about 1810, by a British major general serving in northern India. The American firm of Selchow & Righter packaged pachisi as the Game of India at least as early as 1867. The New Yorkbased McLoughlin Brothers sold the ancient Japanese game of Go as Go-Bang in 1887. Beginning in 1892, Jn?a?na Chaupa?r was available in Britain as Snakes and Ladders; in the United States it was sold, entirely unhinged from its Indian origins, and decidedly karma-free, as Chutes and Ladders.
Unfortunately, although Milton Bradley kept a diary all his life, he never put his papers in an archive, and most of them have been lost, which, not- withstanding his patent application, makes it something of a challenge to know exactly how a young New Englander came, on the eve of the Civil War, to adapt an ancient Southeast Asian game to a red-and-ivory checkerboard featuring an American vision of the good life.6 He certainly never traveled to India. Still, he didn't have to look half a world away to find what he was after.
That life's a game that can be played well or badly is a very old idea, in the West no less than in the East. The people in Thomas More's 1516 Utopia play a game of life, "not much unlike the chesse," in which "vices fyghte wyth vertues, as it were in battell." (The origins of chess are murky. It is thought to have been invented either in India before a.d. 600 or in China about a.d. 800.) How to win and what the rules are - whether you're playing against yourself or against God or Satan - are matters of much speculation. In 1640, the English poet George Herbert put it this way:
Man's life's a game at tables and he may
Mend his bad fortune, by his wiser play;
Death plays against us, each disease and sore
In Man versus Death, being clever helps, but the best you can hope for is to prolong the game. Death always wins. Death is a bastard. Death cheats.
Excerpted from The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2012 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.