The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

Citation:

Lepore, J. 2012. The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. New York: Knopf.

Abstract:

A finalist for the 2013 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has written 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.

Notes:

“A trenchant and fascinating intellectual history of life and death…elegant.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Come expecting to be entertained, educated, and given several helpful new ways to think about the stages of life and what lies beyond…Lepore has mastered the neat trick of writing imaginatively and often humorously for a general audience without checking her scholarly swing…she gets you thinking like she does, and you can ask no more from a historian.” –The Daily Beast

“Lepore has a brilliant way of selecting just the right historical detail to illuminate a larger point…The most valuable lesson here is that of impermanence. Everything changes. And although, as Lepore writes, ‘it’s best to have a plan,’ as her multifaceted, sometimes dizzying joyride of a book reveals, the next roll of dice could, in fact, change everything.” –Boston Sunday Globe

“[Lepore] manages to spin a larger narrative that both fascinates and informs, showing that our taken-for-granted ideas about every stage of life are culturally specific, very much a product of our times.” –The Washington Post

“Brilliantly written and engaging throughout. . . . A sharp, illuminating history of ideas. . . . A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“One of the pleasures of Lepore’s work is the way she uses a single, deftly chosen artifact to crack open a much wider cultural vista…If the bonds between the disparate subjects and motifs in The Mansion of Happiness sometimes seem to be sustained by Lepore’s own personal version of extraordinary measures, there are plenty that hold firm. They can’t be disputed or endorsed like traditional theories, but they can dazzle and illuminate and inspire. And that’s just what they do.” –Salon

“Each sentence brims, each paragraph delights. Taken together these essays are more than the sum of their parts. They are an inquiry into how we think about being alive.” –Smithsonian

"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."--Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

"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."--Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg

"A series of engaging and wonderfully perceptive essays on how individuals caught in time made sense of life and death. Jill Lepore is one of America's most accomplished and imaginative historians."--Linda Colley, author of The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh

"With wit and erudition, Lepore demonstrates that nothing is more mutable and time-bound than our most cherished notions about the supposedly eternal verities of life and death."---Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason

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