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The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore
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The Mansion of Happiness

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The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore
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Mar 26, 2013 | ISBN 9780307476456

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    Mar 26, 2013 | ISBN 9780307476456

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  • Jun 05, 2012 | ISBN 9780307958501

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“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.” —Publishers Weekly 

“A trenchant and fascinating intellectual history of life and death . . . elegant.” —Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review 

“A stunning meditation on three questions that have dominated serious reflection about human nature and cultures for centuries: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? . . . Lepore’s refreshing and often humorous insights breathe fresh air into these everlasting matters.” —Bookpage
“A breezy, informative, wide-ranging book . . . singular, always stimulating.” —The American Scholar
“Lepore’s prose is thoroughly engaging and witty . . . covers enough of mankind’s earnest curiosity about life and death to both entertain and provoke thought.” —Booklist
“Lepore chooses quirky, though always revealing, lenses through which is examine the changing definitions of conception, infancy, childhood, puberty, marriage, middle age, parenthood, old age, death, and immortality. . . . 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.” —Library Journal  
“[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.” —Rachel Newcomb, The Washington Post

“Engaging. . . . Lepore writes about our striving to understand our existence. The Mansion of Happiness is an important addition to the effort.” —San Francisco Chronicle 

“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

“This fascinating book explores a few centuries’ worth of ideas about life and death—you know, just a light beach read. But for all its analysis of Darwin and Aristotle, The Mansion of Happiness is a lot of fun. . . . [Lepore] is always engaging, even surprising.” –Entertainment Weekly 

“A sharp, illuminating history of ideas. . . . Brilliantly written and engaging throughout . . . superb.” —Kirkus, starred review  

“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 
“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

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

“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 

“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.” —Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“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

“Well-researched and emotionally intelligent new book. . . . The history of poetry is the history of shifting conceptions of life, the body, where we come from and what the future holds. In this sense, Lepore’s new book is the stuff that poetry is made of. . . . Lepore’s history isn’t single-file. She weaves names and dates, illuminates unlikely connections; she is a master storyteller. Poets, writers, and artists have made connections between landscape and the body, but Lepore argues the point brilliantly using historical documents.” —The Millions

“Marvelously fresh and inventive. . . .The pieces here are also invigorated by storytelling brio, a wry sense of humor, and a gift for the bon mot.” –Barnes and Noble review 

“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 

“The beauty of Lepore’s book is the simple elegance and wit with which she conveys her conclusions. . . . It’s hard to stop quoting Lepore; her prose is that clever. But what’s more important is that it’s hard to stop reading The Mansion of Happiness.” —The Courier Journal 
“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

“A great ride. . . . Lepore writes with a clear feminist perspective, and it’s a relief to read someone, for example, who personally knows her way around breast pumps and reproductive rights, and can write about them with humor and affection.” —Bust

“For the naturally curious who want to explore something new with the help of a thoughtful essayist like Lepore. . . . It reads very much like a good conversation with a shrewd, witty woman, which is all that can be asked of such a book.” —BookBrowse


Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction FINALIST 2013

Author Q&A

Q: You’ve taken on some of the biggest questions of the human condition in this book, and yet you’ve approached them through very familiar experiences—parenting fears, breastfeeding, board games, children’s literature, adolescence, etc. How did you decide on this approach?

A: I didn’t decide on that as an approach so much as it’s just how my mind works. I spend a lot of time puzzling over the ordinary, wondering where things come from and why they are the way they are. Coffee cups, voting rights, traffic lights—anything, everything. Most things, the longer and harder you think about them, the bigger and harder the questions they raise. One day I was playing The Game of Life, spinning the Wheel of Fate and driving down the Highway of Life, and I thought, “Hey, where did this game come from, anyway?” 
Q: You are an historian, yet through your writing (particularly for The New Yorker) you’ve also become a very popular public intellectual. Do you ever find it difficult to balance these two sides of your work?
A: Yes. But, generally, it’s where it’s difficult that it gets interesting. I’m fascinated by the relationship between the past and the present. I’m fascinated by that relationship as an object of study (What forces cause change over time?) but I’m also fascinated by that relationship as a matter of narrative (What story best chronicles that change?). The tension between analysis and storytelling is not unlike the tension between being a Harvard professor and writing for a magazine. It’s like trying to sing “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” while skipping rope. Either you’re going to run out of breath or you’re going to trip; the only unknown is which will happen first. Still, it keeps you on your toes.

Q: A history of various board games about life form the framework to this book. (Readers will be fascinated to learn where Milton Bradley got his ideas!) How has the end “goal” of life changed over time according to these games, and the societies that they represent?
A: In eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century games of life, the goal was to enter the mansion of happiness: Heaven. In Milton Bradley’s 1860 game, the goal was to win. In the 1960 game, the goal was to retire to Millionaire Acres. The most recent game of life has no goal: life is aimless. When you think about that shift, over the centuries, it turns out to be awfully revealing.
Q: Questions about life and death often boil down to a question of rights. The protection of “life, liberty, and happiness” were central to the founding of this country, but as you write “life, it would seem, trumps all.” Do you think the founders would be surprised by the way that these words have been appropriated by various factions over our history?
A: In writing this book, I tried to offer a different vantage—a long view—on some of the painful and often heartless arguments that have determined the course of American politics since the 1960s. I find comfort in knowing that these arguments are not timeless; they have a history; they have a beginning, which means they might one day have an end. 
Q: The application (or misapplication) of scientific discoveries to affect social change is a theme that appears in many of the chapters of The Mansion of Happiness. Has society’s reaction to scientific advances has become more measured over time?
A: No. In 1939, E.B. White visited the World’s Fair, which that year was called The World of Tomorrow. He had a head cold. “When you can’t breathe through your nose,” he reported, “tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.” Today, I’m sitting here, home sick, staring at the cover of the May 2012 issue of Wired, which just came in the mail. The cover story, about an Internet whiz, is called “The Man Who Makes the Future.” When you can’t breathe through your nose, tomorrow still feels strangely like the day before yesterday.
Q: The battle over “the right to life,” particularly concerning abortion, has become one of the key platforms of the conservative right, but you point out that this was not always the partisan issue that it is today. When did that change?
A: That depends. It changed at different points for party leaders, for elected officials, and for voters, in that order, and beginning in 1971. But my point is: the process by which this serious and complicated issue was reduced to a matter of partisan politics is profoundly troubling, not to mention shabby and grubby.

Q: Another theme that emerges from your book is the distinction between how ideas of life and death have been different for the poor and wealthy. In which areas of your research did you see the class divide emerge most strongly?
A: That’s all over the place in the world we live in, to be seen, by everyone, every day; anyone who’s ever walked into a hospital has seen it. But an aspect of my research that really set me back on my heels had to do with human milk, breast pumps, and the care of infants. In few other stages of life, I think, is economic inequality so starkly visible.
Q: As one might expect, questions of parenting play a large role in the discussions of life and death. Do you think that your own experience as a parent led you to explore any sources in a different way than you might have without that experience?
A: Undoubtedly. If some kid wasn’t putting me up to it, I would never have been playing The Game of Life, or reading Stuart Little. Or, wait, strike that. I’d for sure have been reading Stuart Little. If you have twelve hours or so, I could make a dent at explaining how I feel about E.B. White.
Q: Was there any discovery from your research for this book that particularly surprised you?
A: That Stuart Little was banned. Shocking! Fascinating!
Q: You show how prevailing opinions about life and death can change the course of politics, and can in fact be dangerous. In your opinion, is there a particular lesson from the past that we need to take to heart as these debates and discussions of life continue?
A: There are only two lessons. 1. The past is not dispositive. 2. No day is a bad day to read E.B. White’s 1947 essay, “Death of a Pig.”

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