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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death [Kindle Edition]

Jill Lepore
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews


“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 

About the Author

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include The Story of America; The Whites of Their Eyes; New York Burning, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Name of War, winner of the Bancroft Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2089 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0307592995
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (June 5, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006L7RJB4
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #188,824 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Game of Life, and its changing meaning June 8, 2012
The guiding metaphor of this book is a board game -- or more properly, the evolution of a particular game from iteration to iteration.

The game was called Mansion of Happiness. The goal of the game was to reach Heaven -- or the Mansion of Happiness. It encouraged virtues like honesty, temperance and purity. It had its own origin in ancient eastern games of fate and karma. Milton Bradley, the great game designer, based his own The Game of Life on the Mansion of Happiness. But instead of celebrating the traditional virtues, he celebrated the American ones -- Industry, Thrift, etc.

Just as this game has changed through the centuries, so have our views of the passage of life itself. This book tracks the changing views of the stages of life in America.

The book is broken up into chapters, each exploring a stage of life, and America's changing views. In each chapter, the author looks at a couple of thinkers or historical figures. The author explores the historical transition from a cyclical view of life to a linear one.

Highly recommended for the interesting twists and turns of thought and history, for the intriguing connections between apparently unrelated themes, and for a truly thought-provoking look at the questions we ask about life. This book will make you reconsider what it is to live.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All over the place July 30, 2012
The Mansion of Happiness can't decide what it wants to be. With a subtitle like A History of Life and Death, this book has license to be about, well, everything. Or, in other words, nothing specific.

The beginning at least shows promise with some background info on board game pioneer Milton Bradley and the evolution of what our games tell us about ourselves. And then there's a chapter on breastfeeding. And then one on children's rights and children's libraries. And then a potpourri of subjects such as sex, politics, women's rights, workplace efficiency (?), motherhood, family planning, contraception and cryogenics. I get that we're meant to progress through the stages of life, but very little about one topic links with the next. My recommendation is to forget about discovering any overarching theme, and instead approach this work as a collection of essays.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Thoughtful Writing June 14, 2012
This book is very interesting, it kept my attention. It is a historical view of how some people have viewed the different stages of life with a little of the author's own viewpoint mixed in. The emphasis is fairly heavily weighted towards the beginning and the ending stages or parenting. There is really not much covering that large span of middle-age where many of us will spend decades without children. It doesn't quite read like a comprehensive book upon a single subject and this puzzled me as I read it. It didn't have an overall narrative arch that I would have expected. I discovered why when I reached its end. The author says most of the chapters started out as essays in The New Yorker (she's a staff writer there). These reasons are the only reasons why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5.

Having said all of the above however shouldn't take away from what is there. Each chapter usually focuses on the thoughts or ideas of one or two important people involved in something related to that stage of life. The individual chapters taken as such are simply excellent. Lepore is an excellent writer and if you like excellent writing then you will probably like this book. It is for thoughtful people who might be thinking about life. This book has Amazon's excellent "Search Inside" feature which allows you to view the table of contents and get a taste for the writing in the book. There are a lot of pages of this book previewed and you should take advantage of that.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read December 30, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Those looking for simple, weighty, biblical answers to life's essential questions will be disappointed. Instead, Professor Lepore portrays detailed snapshots of our nation at different ages. We are left to pull together the confusing and at times contradictory currents of American history.

She offers a carefully documented, readable, and in places humorous look at how our nation and its thinking has changed, since our founding fathers walked the earth. She gives evenhanded treatment of her subjects that counters history's fundamentalists. She writes of the history that was rather than what ought to have been.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read September 15, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is NOT a history of anything, really, but it is a fascinating read if one enjoys well-written essays on American culture. The author is erudite, without being dry or overly academic. I learned some things and got some chuckles reading The Mansion of Happiness.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but dry August 8, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
I read Ms Lepore's recent book about Jane Franklin, and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Her research is very thorough, and although there is not that much first hand information about Jane, the author was able to bring her to life. This book is really a series of essays and, although the concept is interesting, I found the book dry. The research, again, seems very thorough but I
didn't find a character to draw me in.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good book August 28, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
this is a quirky book, but filled with so much insight and things to think about. arrived quickly and as specified
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Wise
Lots of stuff you wouldn't expect woven together from an intelligent and female point of view.

I shall read more from this author.
Published 1 day ago by Sam Spata
2.0 out of 5 stars Reconsider before reading
This is a poor example of the author's work in my opinion.
Published 3 months ago by R. Walter
3.0 out of 5 stars A whimper, not a whopper
This one seemed quite good at the outset and gradually petered out. The concept is great good fun, a perusal of our cultural attitudes toward life and death, birth, childhood,... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Cecil Bothwell
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Reading
Jill Lepore is an historian who recently wrote about Ben Franklin's sister and I noticed that some of her other books looked good. This was very interesting and very different.
Published 9 months ago by Marjean M. Hull
5.0 out of 5 stars A look at our history and changing cultural norms regarding life and...
People seem lately to rewrite history in their own image, useful to their purposes, as though their agendas were always the norm and to hold differently than they do is aberrant... Read more
Published 23 months ago by John Kelly
2.0 out of 5 stars It wasn't what I expected
I must admit that I didn't finish this book because it wasn't what I thought it was going to be about. I guess I expected a real history lesson and it bored me.
Published 23 months ago by Thomas Paine
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointting book
I purchased this book based on the tittle. I expected the essays to address philosophical issues related to death and the meaning of life. I read about half the book. Read more
Published on September 21, 2012 by CRL
1.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing mishmash
A book cobbled together from articles in the New Yorker, with the "unifying" gimic being the occasional mention of a "mansion of happiness. Read more
Published on September 7, 2012 by Ann M. Altman
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and fun to read
Written in a nice, breezy style; yet very well researched. Nearly half the Kindle edition is composed of the endnotes and index. Read more
Published on September 6, 2012 by William H. Chambliss
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More About the Author

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Her first book, "The Name of War," won the Bancroft Prize; her 2005 book, "New York Burning," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 she published "Blindspot," a mock eighteenth-century novel, jointly written with Jane Kamensky. Lepore's most recent book, "The Whites of Their Eyes," is a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

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