Wednesday, August 29, 2012

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

I remember playing Milton Bradley's The Game of Life as a kid. There was not really much to it besides spinning the wheel and moving the little plastic cars filled with pale blue and pink pegs around the board. Going to college to get the higher salaries seemed the only important decision to make. Luck of the spin seemed the primary influence on winning and losing. Still, my friends and I played over and over. It was so seductive to contemplate what might happen to us for real.

Historian Jill Lepore refers to the game and its predecessors throughout her book The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, as she explores several centuries of thought about the stages of human life: conception, infancy, childhood, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, adulthood, middle age, old age, and afterlife. Each stage gets a chapter in which the author reports on changes through the ages. In the chapter "Baby Food," she chronicles the many movements for and against breastfeeding. In "The Children's Room," she tells how the magazine Life shocked many in 1938 with what would now be considered very tame photos of a human birth; later revealed to have been staged, no private parts were actually shown in the tiny grainy thumbnail shots. In "Mr. Marriage," she reports on the eugenics movement of the early 20th century which supported state laws for forced stylization of "the feeble, the insane, and the criminal"; over 20,000 people of low regard where sterilized in California alone.

I see libraries are putting The Mansion of Happiness in their American history sections. That is okay as the book does focus on U.S. event. It could just as easily go in collections of philosophy and ethics or with books of sociology. Whatever, it is an entertaining and enlightening work from a historian with a growing shelf of titles, including one novel.

Lepore, Jill. The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 282p. ISBN 9780307592996.

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