Book of the week: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore

The Harvard historian and New Yorker writer offers “trenchant and fascinating” chronicle of our culture’s shifting ideas about life's purpose.

(Knopf, $28)

It might seem odd that a book about life and death would begin with Milton Bradley, said Dani Shapiro in The New York Times. But that’s the way Jill Lepore’s mind works. The Harvard historian and New Yorker writer kicks off her “trenchant and fascinating” chronicle of our culture’sshifting ideas about human life and its ends in 1860, the year the young American toymaker decided to retool a popular British board game called the Mansion of Happiness. Players in that older game sought to dodge vices and accumulate virtues in order to outrace their fellow pilgrims to heaven. For his uniquely American adaptation, Bradley decided to chuck the piety. In his version, originally called the Checkered Game of Life, players raced through life’s stages seeking maximum material wealth. Quite obviously,our ideas about life’s purpose had changed.

“One of the pleasures of Lepore’s work is the way she uses a single, deftly chosen artifact to crack open a wider cultural vista,” said Laura Miller in In one “potent” chapter, she revisits the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, a comatose young woman who in 1976 sparked a new national debate—about the right to die—when her parents tried to have her removed from life support. Lepore also excels at connecting disparate threads. An image from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey—of a fetus floating in deep space—reminds her of a famous 1965 Life magazine photo spread that detailed the stages of fetal development and thus helped fuel the right-to-life movement. Both, she says, represent fantasies of prenatal life because both leave mothers out of the picture. Though Lepore’s connections are sometimes too coy, they often “illuminate and inspire.”

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Like Bradley’s game, Lepore’s book is “distinctly American,” said Buzzy Jackson in The Boston Globe. It doesn’t attempt to tell readers what to think. Instead, “the whirlwind of people and concepts” serves to illustrate just how transient our contemporary opinions might be. A chapter on breast-feeding, for example, shows how Americans have flip-flopped: In some eras, the practice is hallowed; in others, it’s indecent. Discussing Quinlan, Lepore points out that the question of whether to pull the plug couldn’t even have been asked in the 1950s. As in Milton Bradley’s game, the future is ever uncertain.“The next roll of the dice could, in fact, change everything.”

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