June 2012

Asking the big questions

By Jill Lepore
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In the modern board game of Life, players come to a fork in the journey very early on: get a job or go to college. If they choose college, they might find a higher-paying job in the long run, but they’ll have to take out loans and pile up debt before ever collecting a paycheck. Players might start a family along life’s road, but whichever fork they choose, unlike real life, always leads to retirement and never to death.

The Mansion of Happiness—the prototype for Life—was the most popular board game in 19th-century Britain, and while it was more moralistic than its later American counterpart, it raised many of the same questions about this journey called life. With her characteristically vivid storytelling, New Yorker writer Jill Lepore uses this British game to embark on a stunning meditation on three questions that have dominated serious reflection about human nature and culture for centuries: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die?

Lepore proceeds by exploring the stages of life from before birth, infancy and childhood to growing up, growing old, dying and life after death. For example, she examines 17th-century physician William Harvey’s discovery that human life begins with an egg (as opposed to the long-held belief that humans germinated from seeds), and illustrates the ways that such an idea came to have significant political consequences for women by the latter half of the 20th century. She focuses on the Karen Ann Quinlan case to show how the definitions of life and death—once the province of religion—were suddenly decided not in a hospital or a church but in a courtroom.

Through these stories, Lepore demonstrates how the contemplation of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, so that scientific narratives of progress now promise a different sort of eternity—right up to the vague idea that one day, when the Earth dies, humans will simply move to outer space. In The Mansion of Happiness, Lepore’s refreshing and often humorous insights breathe fresh air into these everlasting matters.

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