The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore

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“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.” —Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How The World Became Modern

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.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

From our Q&A with the author

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.

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