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New On The Bookshelf: Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness

Our “New On The Bookshelf” series highlights new works from past Anisfield-Wolf authors. 

It’s a question many of us don’t like to think about that often: What happens when we die? But 2006 nonfiction winner Jill Lepore’s new book takes it a step further, analyzing our role in creating life—and death. In her new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, Lepore takes what could be an austere topic and infuses it with lots of surprises along the way. Lepore’s book couldn’t be more timely, particularly in today’s political climate, where debates over health care, birth control and abortion often take center stage.

In an interview with Newsday, Lepore discusses why this type of book is important:

There’s been a massive change in our orientation from looking for answers in the past to looking for answers in the future. We subscribe to this scientific, linear narrative of progress: Whatever is difficult about growing older, or dying, or raising children, will be solved at some future point. We subscribe to this notion so wholly that we forget this way of thinking is new. I try to pull back and show what’s lost when we don’t look backward; I think there is wisdom to be found in the study of how people long before us wrestled with these questions.

Read the rest of the interview here.

In the video above, Jill Lepore tackles the meaning of life (a modest topic, she says dryly) in a recent talk at Harvard. “Most questions about life and death have no answers, including notably these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? No one has ever answered these questions and no one ever will. But everyone tries. Trying is the human condition. And history is the chronicle of the asking.”

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