Summary and book reviews of The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore

The Mansion of Happiness

A History of Life and Death

by Jill Lepore

The Mansion of Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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About this Book

Book Summary

Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has composed a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.

How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? "All anyone can do is ask," Lepore writes. "That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity." Lepore starts that history with the story of a seventeenth-century Englishman who had the idea that all life begins with an egg and ends it with an American who, in the 1970s, began freezing the dead. In between, life got longer, the stages of life multiplied, and matters of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, from the humanities to the sciences. Lately, debates about life and death have determined the course of American politics. Each of these debates has a history. Investigating the surprising origins of the stuff of everyday life - from board games to breast pumps - Lepore argues that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the Space Age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy. "New worlds were found," she writes, and "old paradises were lost."

As much a meditation on the present as an excavation of the past, The Mansion of Happiness is delightful, learned, and altogether beguiling.

Contents


  1. Hatched
  2. Baby Food
  3. The Children's Room   
  4. All about Erections
  5. Mr. Marriage
  6. Happiness Minutes
  7. Confessions of an Amateur Mother
  8. Happy Old Age
  9. The Gate of Heaven
  10. Resurrection    



Introduction

In 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a lanky, long- nosed, twenty-three-year-old Yankee named Milton Bradley invented his first board game, played on a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares. He called it the Checkered Game of Life. Play starts at the board's lower left corner, on an ivory square labeled Infancy - illustrated by a tiny, black-inked lithograph of a wicker cradle - and ends, usually but not always, at Happy Old Age, at the upper right, although landing on Suicide, inadvertently, helplessly, miserably, and with a noose around your neck, is more common than you might think, and means, inconveniently, that you're dead.

"The...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

My expectations for this new collection of essays from New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore stemmed from the book’s grand title. I envisioned a series of short introductions to different philosophies, of primarily religious nature, that concern themselves with the beginning of life and afterlife. What I found was, paradoxically, both more complex and simpler. As one would expect from a Harvard historian, this collection is quite edifying. However the collection is not rigidly academic – it aims for the engaging cocktail party conversation rather than comprehensive historical assessment.   (Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).

Full Review Members Only (767 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

With her characteristically sharp-edged humor and luminous storytelling, Lepore regales us with stories that follow the stages of life…her inspired commentary on our shared social history offers a fresh approach to our changing views of life and death.

Library Journal

Through sheer force of charisma, Lepore keeps her readers on track: this book, with all its detours and winding turns, is a journey worth taking.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A sharp, illuminating history of ideas…Brilliantly written and engaging throughout…superb.

Author Blurb Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg
Equip a profound scholar with H. L. Mencken's instinct for running down charlatans and chuckleheads, and you get this book. It will amuse and embarrass those of us ever befuddled by the rogues in her gallery.

Author Blurb Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How The World Became Modern
Written with sardonic wit and penetrating intelligence, The Mansion of Happiness is a fascinating and startlingly original guide to the ways in which the human life-cycle has been imagined, manipulated, managed, marketed, and debased in modern times. Lepore weaves her way brilliantly along the mazy track that leads from the egg in which life's game begins to the giant freezers in which certain crack-brained visionaries hope to defeat death itself. A fast-paced, hilarious, angry, poignant, and richly illuminating book." –

Author Blurb James Gleick, author of The Information
This is why Jill Lepore is becoming my favorite historian: wise, witty, wide in scope and deep in spirit.

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Beyond the Book

How the Evolution of Board Games Demonstrates Changing Social Mores

The board game, Mansion of Happiness Jill Lepore's new book takes its title from The Mansion of Happiness, a nineteenth century board game that demonstrated Christian morality. Like children's literature of the time, such didactic games were quite popular, but are also timeless: one such board game, The Game of Goose, has origins in ancient Egypt!

The original Life board game Originally marketed in 1843, The Mansion of Happiness became very popular in America, as did a number of similar games that followed. As society's focus moved to industrial growth and economic gain, board games shifted from encouraging morality to encouraging strong financial and capitalistic behavior. The Checkered Game of Life, a sort of hybrid between checkers and the modern board game Life, was one such game.

The board game, Round the World with Nellie Bly ...

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