When you order books for the library, a lot of different titles come to your attention. Many are straightforward (The Complete Guide to Roofing & Siding), some are brazen (F**k It Therapy : The Profane Way to Profound Happiness), and others are just bizarre (Fifty Shades of Chicken : A Parody in a Cookbook ). But every so often you come across a title that is so intriguing, you have to put down your copy of Library Journal and place a hold on it. Such a moment struck me when I came across The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore.
Even after reading a review or two I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got my hands on the book. What I found did not disappoint. Lepore has written a clever, funny and quirky series of essays that examines the peculiarly American take on what it means to be born, to live, and to die and how those ideas have changed throughout our history.
Now I know that the subtitle (A History of Life and Death) might make the book sound grandiose or way too general but it isn’t at all. As she states in her introduction: “To write history is to make an argument by telling a story. This is, above all, a book of stories.” And luckily for the reader, the stories she tells are doozies.
The chapter “Baby Food” is a good example. The author examines the surprisingly contentious social history of the “proper” way for an infant to get nutrition. As the tale unfolds you are introduced to people such as Dr. Fritz Talbot who in 1910 started the Wet Nurse Directory, policy statements like the American Academy of Pediatrics position paper on breast feeding in 1997, and technology such as the Medela ‘Pump In Style’ breast pump. All of these elements are weaved together in an entertaining and insightful way.
Many of the chapters are gems but a few of the stand outs include:
“All About Erections”: Concerning Sylvester Graham’s crusade against ‘self-pollution’ and the curious history of sex education.
“Mr. Marriage”: Examining the disturbing connections between marriage counseling, founded by Paul Popenoe, and eugenics.
“Happiness Minutes”: Highlighting the lives of Lillian and Frank Gilberth and the attempt to run your life along scientific management principles.
My favorite though, is the final chapter “Resurrection”. Lepore interviews Robert Ettinger and tours the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan. The institute is really just a small warehouse that preserves the frozen remains of those who hope to one day be revived by future scientific methods. While the idea is clearly ludicrous, the essay isn’t cruel, though it is funny. Instead Lepore effectively highlights the strong pull of self-centered belief and how it often triumphs over reason.
Life is full of surprises. But one of the best is discovering a book that actually lives up to its intriguing title.