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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

3.46  ·  Rating Details ·  724 Ratings  ·  159 Reviews
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
ebook, 320 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Vintage (first published January 1st 2012)
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Lauren Albert
An odd book. It was not what I expected. It read like separate essays on the histories of widely disparate (though sometimes related) topics: nursing, eugenics, sex education, children's books and libraries, marital advice, parenting advice, cryogenics and Life the board game. There are others.They all touch on a "time" of life--or on ideas about those times--but so does everything, after all. That is not necessarily a criticism. I can imagine essays on a child's first experience of death, a per ...more
John  Bellamy
Feb 06, 2013 John Bellamy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Prince Hamlet's observation that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" might aptly summarize Jill Lepore's collection of wide-ranging essays on ideas about life and death. And since perhaps no country other than America has produced weirder fancies on those two phenomena, Lepore provides a hilarious and witty historical tour of same, from Milton Bradley's 1860 board game, "The Checkered Game of Life" (it didn't include Boardwalk but it did feature a game-ending space cal ...more
Jul 23, 2012 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, nonfiction, 2012
This was a thought-provoking read. Not all of the chapters, many of which had been essays written for the New Yorker, were equally of interest to me, but the overall theme of the birth of ideas was very interesting. Things that we take for granted as givens, like the idea of adolescence as a stage of life-it's good to be reminded that those ideas had a beginning, sometimes strange ones with unlikely (and sometimes really horrible) folks promoting them. Even the people who were proponents of the ...more
Dec 29, 2012 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore is a collection of loosely-connected essays exploring The Meaning of Life (capital “T”, capital “M”, capital “L”). It turns out that the answer to this grand, existential question frequently turns on the unexpected and, often, the seemingly prosaic. To wit: photography and political calculus did far, far more to create the “right to life” movement than organized religion (especially protestant Christians).

Instead of trying to answer the question of the me
Sep 12, 2012 Caren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
Because the chapters of this book began life as essays in The New Yorker magazine, they are somewhat loosely strung together and feel as though they could stand on their own, should you wish to delve into an individual topic. The author, a professor of American History at Harvard, has a broad overarching theme of the changing attitudes toward the life cycle in American culture. Her skill in pulling together disparate incidents and ideas works well, so the book is consistently interesting and ent ...more
Jul 08, 2012 Will rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, nonfiction
Rather than a comprehensive history, Lepore tackles the different stages of life--and how America has conceptualized, fantasized, and fought over them--through anecdotal stories and engaging, offbeat characters. Much of her research and storytelling is centered around the major shifts in American attitudes and values as a result of the Progressive Era, a period (I greatly paraphrase) concerned with improving the quality of human life through the widespread adoption of science and technology into ...more
This book by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore is collection of loosely linked essays, many originally published in the New Yorker focusing on the big questions of life generally as reflected in the domestic sphere. The subjects include conception, sex, marriage counseling, breast feeding, the invention of the idea of adolescence, children's literature, parenting, home economics, old age, and cryogenics. The events and ideas discussed range from about the 17th century to the 21st, but are mostly ...more
Oct 01, 2012 Carl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The best way to describe what this book is about is that it is a history of hokum, quackery, crackpots charlatans and chuckleheads as framed by the stages of life and death as refracted through a board game created in 1860 called the Checkered Game of Life. We know this game more by it's 100th anniversary reworking as the game Life.

through this we are treated to essays about eugenics, forced steralizations of the mentally impaired, cryonics, the creation of the Children's Library, how the unders
Jul 03, 2012 Jamie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
This book is a rather meandering look at various life stages viewed through a particular perspective of American culture. While several of the passages were interesting, I had to remind myself many times what the topic of the book was, because the various stories didn't really fit together. For example, the section on childhood was primarily about the development of children's libraries and literature, which didn't really address how the concept of childhood has changed in America over time. At ...more
Jul 17, 2012 Jennifer rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
While I found this book a relatively engaging, quick read, especially for non-fiction, I agree with the other reviewers that Mansion of Happiness is meandering, and not in a good way. By the time I had finished reading the dust cover insert, introduction and first chapter, I already had the impression that I was reading essays on miscellaneous topics Jill Lepore found interesting that she then attempted to tweak to fit a theme so that they could be published in a book. Lo and behold, in the "Las ...more
"Some people will always think they know how to make other people’s marriages better, and, after a while, they’ll get to cudgeling you or selling you something; the really entrepreneurial types will sell you the cudgel."

According to the jacket copy, this is "a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death." No. It is actually a collection of recycled essays from The New Yorker. They're good essays, and I admire Dr. Lepore's abi
Aug 26, 2012 Cara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a super-interesting conglomeration of facts about the culture of life and death in America. Lepore has done extensive research, and by bringing various historical events and people together, and comparing them side-by-side against the backdrop of American culture, she paints a truly intriguing picture of life in this country. Each chapter explores a different stage in a human life, from conception to death. The first two chapters were absolutely phenomenal, which I think is why I on ...more
Lots of fun. Jill Lepore's style is as smooth as silk, and the book is full of neat things to know.
May 17, 2013 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really glad I read this. The author was inspired by her mother's death and most of the chapters began as essays in The New Yorker. Jill Lepore traces the history of American ideas about life and death. The fascinating - sometimes quirky facts - she provides illustrate her talents as a great researcher and that the reader is never bored illustrates her talents as a great writer. The latter part of the book focuses on the role American politics has had on debates about life and death and is what I ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 02, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Review title: The Game of Life
While my review titles are often allusional or delusional attempts at humor or insight, this one is strictly literal and it is Jill Lepore, the book's author who is trending into the area of allegorical insight. The original Mansion of Happiness was an 18th century version of the modern board game that with dice, decisions. and deliberate emulates the contemporary vision of the "good life". Lepore uses this framework to stitch together a series of historical essays
Dec 02, 2014 Jan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I can't even tell you what this book is about because I'm not sure. Ostensibly, I suppose it's about the different stages of life, from birth to death. But that doesn't really feel like what it's about. I spent the whole book feeling confused. "What is this about again?" I kept asking myself. It just kind of meanders from one topic to the next, and none of it really goes together all that well.

The other thing that confused me was that the chapters never seemed to be about what the title of the c
Aug 04, 2014 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
Lepore is such an insightful and wonderful writer that I feel humbled just to read her. This book not only exemplifies her strengths as an historical scholar, it shows her gifts both structuring and styling prose. And, on top of all this, every page is interesting to read. As she uses the book's titular board game as both a metaphor for and a means of structuring the exploration that follows, she reveals how attitudes toward life--writ large and small--have altered over the course of the last co ...more
Jun 15, 2012 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: airplane-books
This is such a weird, scattered, fun, crazy book. It's different from most things I read - it's a "history" book, so to speak - but it's a history book that traces the natural life of objects and thoughts, rather than wars and power struggles. And it's sooo weird! When it talks about eggs, Lepore riffs on subjects as diverse as LIFE magazine to Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" to Darwin's theory of evolution. It more than a little reminded me of Sebald's style. Totally crazy, totally awesome.
Dec 07, 2014 Robert rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The published description of this book is misleading. It has little to do with the 1843 board game "The Mansion of Happiness" and is not really a history of life and death. It is, instead, a rambling collection of disjointed essays on a variety of subjects, which do include the subjects of life and of death, but those are pretty broad subjects.

The best way I can describe it: You go to a four hour dinner with a friend who is a professor. She is bright, well read and clever, but also condescending
Sarah Harvey
Aug 24, 2012 Sarah Harvey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Yes, it meanders, but so do great conversations with intelligent people. If you can accept that it's not a linear history, then you'll love it. Once I realized (and accepted) that the book was a history of ideas, informed by a writer with a sense of humour, then I was able to read it without judging the somewhat loose structure. Fascinating stuff.
Todd Martin
The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of essays on various scientific/historical topics loosely grouped around the subject of birth, life and death. So ‘loosely grouped’ in fact, that there is an entire chapter featuring Milton Bradley’s ‘The Game of Life’, presumably because the word ‘life’ appears prominently on the box. The book takes the term ‘scattershot’ to a whole new level, wildly veering from topic to topic like a driver with hyperkinesia attempting to navigate an obstacle course whi ...more
Oct 01, 2015 Elizabeth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jill Lepore endeavors to cover the history of life and death--with a good deal of humor as well as explanation. "The Mansion of Happiness" was a successful 19th century family game that endeavored to teach younger family members values as they hopped around the board. So too was the original "Checkerboard Game of Life," created by Milton Bradley in 1860. I remember the centennial edition in 1960, which had lost the moral imperatives and involved getting into a car and driving around.

While Ms. Le
Bob Wollenberg
Very interesting way to look at history as it affects various points of our lives. Well written and enjoyable.
Jul 30, 2012 Simone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this quirky, slightly rambling history book. I love Lepore's voice.
May 04, 2015 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I promised my brother I'd finish this by his birthday, and I made it with two days to spare. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and I absolutely loved the introduction, but it turned out a little differently than I thought it would. I understand now that most of the chapters were individual essays written for the New Yorker, but as I read through them I felt like there was something missing to tie them all together, aside from the obvious progression of tales from birth to death. I loved the p ...more
Mar 07, 2014 Gwen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Gwen by: NPR's summer 2012 book list
Shelves: culture
Had I known that this book was a collection of New Yorker essays loosely tied together, I would not have picked it up. I find more recent New Yorker articles much easier and enjoyable to read than those from decades past, and Lepore's are no exception. These essays were all over the place with only awkward callbacks and the flimsiest of connections to link disjointed topics. Lepore has some pithy humor amidst the overabundance of information, but these are hard to pull out with all the extraneou ...more
"A History of Life and Death" is actually about perceptions and traditions revolving around birth, childhood, adolescence, sex, and death in the United States, with a lot of time devoted to E.B. White and his book "Stuart Little," breast feeding, and to the game of Life by Milton Bradley. "The Mansion of Happiness" of the title is Life's predecessor, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing the difference between the two games, with Mansion of Happiness devoting a number of squares t ...more
Oct 22, 2012 Rick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really interesting and fascinating book. In every chapter Lepore writes about the evolution of American thought on the only subjects that matter Life and Death. From the game of Life to breast feeding in the workplace to the development of sex education manuals and finally cryogenics Lepore touches in a wide range of topics. I can honestly say I learned something or many things in every chapter. Erudite and witty, Lepore writes very well and her research is prodigious and well footnoted for sc ...more
Grady McCallie
Jan 09, 2013 Grady McCallie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
The chapters in this collection of historical essays are all ostensibly about changing conceptions of 'the journey of life' in American culture over the last three centuries. I say ostensibly because many started out as free-standing essays. Virtually all the topics of the individual chapters are personally and idiosyncratically relevant to Lepore's biography (some quite poignantly so), as she explains in her epilogue - titled, in keeping with the book's birth to death structure, 'Last Words'. T ...more
Byron Edgington
May 12, 2013 Byron Edgington rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ms Lepore has done it again. Brilliant essays on various and changing views of life and death in modern, and not so modern America. Is life a circle or is it linear? Since the advent of electric lighting and subsequent change from agrarian to urban lifestyles, American psychic life has changed utterly. Our sense and understanding of living and dying changed in ways few of us appreciate: from board games to breast pumps, the way we look at cemeteries, how we view life expectancy, even our politic ...more
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Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book on race, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War (Knopf, 1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson P
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“...but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask.” 2 likes
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