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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  824 ratings  ·  175 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
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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3.52  · 
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 ·  824 ratings  ·  175 reviews

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Jul 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012, nonfiction, essays
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 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
John  Bellamy
Feb 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Lauren Albert
Oct 05, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Sep 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, essays
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
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Brilliant historian and storyteller.
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
Sep 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was ok
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 13, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Sandra Ross
Nov 25, 2018 rated it liked it
I expected this book to be better than it was. Lepore makes some important points, but not always right on target with root causes and influences or her conclusions about consequences/results/reactions, about how society - from entertainment (games, media, etc.), religion, government, to science, in particular - has manipulated and reimaged the concepts of life (its origins) and death (the last curtain call) and everything in between.

I agree with some of her presumptive statements about how much
"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 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Sarah Harvey
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Just a note that a lot of this book was previously published in the New Yorker, so will not be new to longtime readers. It's more of a collection of pieces than a cohesive whole, but the essays themselves are interesting.
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this quirky, slightly rambling history book. I love Lepore's voice.
Jun 20, 2015 added it
Lots of fun. Jill Lepore's style is as smooth as silk, and the book is full of neat things to know.
Bob Wollenberg
Jul 04, 2012 rated it liked it
Very interesting way to look at history as it affects various points of our lives. Well written and enjoyable.
Sarah Beth
Mar 18, 2019 rated it liked it
This book is composed of a series of loosely connected essays that all explore the history of ideas behind the meaning of life and death in America. In other words, it explores how knowledge - or the lack of knowledge - has shaped Americans' understanding of life and death. For example, the emerging constructs of childhood, adolescence, and parenthood altered the view of the progression of life and the views on how these phases of lie should be carried out. With essays exploring ideas on concept ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it liked it
This book feels incomplete as an argument. The chapters are divided mostly chronologically both in terms of life span and history. However, this led to my feeling that Lepore was telling a story rather than presenting an argument. That would be fine were it her mission, but the book concludes that “history is the art of making an argument by telling a story about the dead.” It was generally an interesting story. But it does not represent a cogent argument, and ultimately, that is what I wanted f ...more
Karen Schnakenberg
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
A bit of a disappointment. I've read Lepore in the New Yorker and enjoyed her detailed yet clearly accessible writing, but this volume feels like little more than a collection of articles rather than the history it proclaims to be. The individual articles are strung together but never manage to provide a connected narrative. Perhaps a different title would lead to more appopriate expectations. And within the articles themselves, Lepore frequently juggles 2 or 3 narratives but again they do not n ...more
Peter Dunn
Jan 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is essentially a collection of the authour's writings in the New Yorker but they all hang together well within a sort of seven ages of man overarching theme.

Two of highlights for me were her explorations of: an early expert on domestic science who appeared to have just one hot meal in her own cooking repertoire, which her family described as dog’s vomit on toast; and a pioneer of time and motion studies who though highly influential allegedly tended to use badly informed guesses rather tha
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Jill Lepore is as good a storyteller as she is a historian and she's a darn good historian. I love the way she weaves threads together, starting with one event/person, moving on to a seemingly different topic but then bringing back in an earlier thread. If you are a fan of history, particularly the personal side of history, Jill Lepore is a must on your to-read list.
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Anything written by Jill Lepore deserves five stars. A consideration of how Americans value and block happiness. Not entirely what I expected (I thought my mystical searches would be included) but all sorts of tidbits, not to mention challenges to my thinking.
Dec 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I like any book that mentions Stuart Little.
May 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Learned a lot. I got a little tired of the format by the end but overall very enjoyable.
Sep 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not the "Story of America" but a satisfying read nonetheless. The introduction is the best part.
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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
“...but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask.” 4 likes
“every age has its folly” 0 likes
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