Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Review: "The Mansion of Happiness"

Jill Lepore's The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012) is, mostly, a collection of her articles from The New Yorker in recent years, loosely grouped together under the broad themes of life and death. As Lepore notes in the preface, a "history of life and death ... could include just about anything" (xi), so with a few bits of transition text thrown in to tie the different articles together, she's got herself a book.

Lepore's introduction, "The Mansion of Happiness" (originally published in 2007) is about Milton Bradley's Checkered Game of Life, invented in 1860. As in most of the other chapters, Lepore uses some small thing as a touchstone and then ranges far afield: here, for example, she uses Bradley's game to discuss the history of "moral" board games, Bradley's biography, the afterlife of Life the game, &c. And she lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, which is mapped out roughly chronologically based on the "stages of life."

The rest of the book proceeds apace. Lepore's style sometimes feels a bit scattershot and rambling, but I say that in the nicest possible way. It's fascinating to see how she makes connections and draws comparisons across time, space, and subject matter - it's rather fun to see where she's going to take you next. From breastfeeding to Stuart Little to Sylvester Graham to eugenics to parenting magazines to Karen Ann Quinlan, Lepore writes comfortably and with her characteristic wit.

E.B. White is a favorite of Lepore's (as he is a favorite of mine), and he, like a few other names and topics, figures in more than a few of the chapters. The section of the book I enjoyed most, though (as I did the article on which it was based) was "The Children's Room," about NYPL children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore and her opposition to White's Stuart Little. This essay alone would make the book worth reading.

I was a bit surprised that the book's notes don't include citations to the original publications of these pieces; that's covered, it seems, by a blanket note on the copyright page: "Portions of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker." But I will say that I was very glad to see the endnotes at all, since they wouldn't have been made available in the original publications.

As she said at the outset, this book "could include just about anything," and it does. It's not, really, a "history of life and death," but as a collection of essays broadly related to those topics, it works very nicely indeed.

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