What’s in a name?

  • by <a href="http://areadinglife.com/author/rwoolf/" target="_blank">Richard</a>, Everett Public Library staff
  • Tuesday, November 6, 2012 8:18am
  • LifeA Reading Life

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.

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library

More in Life

Co-owner Jason Parzyk carries two growlers to fill as he serves up beer at Lake Stevens Brewing Co. The first brewery in the city is celebrating one-year anniversary this weekend. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Beer of the Week: Lake Stevens Brewing Co.’s Sour Imperial

The beer has a depth and a complex flavor profile that goes beyond just another barrel-aged stout.

Now is the perfect time to design the garden of your dreams

Find inspiration in gardening magazines, on the internet, in your neighborhood and at nurseries.

Around Thanksgiving, gardeners give thanks for the garden

What are they most thankful for? The pleasure they receive from spending time in their yards.

Great Plant Pick: Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’

What: An exceptional selection of the eastern arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis “Degroot’s Spire”… Continue reading

The pros’ snow: Lake Tahoe a big draw for skiers of all stripes

North Lake Tahoe is home to one of the largest concentrations of ski resorts in North America.

How birds stay alive in winter and what you can do to help

When the weather turns chilly, columnist Sharon Wootton’s thoughts turn to birds coping with cold.

Our annual list of holiday events in Snohomish County and beyond

LIGHTS The Lights of Christmas: Open 5 to 10 p.m. Nov. 30-Dec.… Continue reading

How to maintain your life’s balance amid change

Columnist Paul Schoenfeld shares some techniques for working toward a sense of stability.

Taylor Swift avoided and mocked the media with ‘Reputation’

Since its release on Nov. 10, the pop star’s sixth album has officially sold more than 1 million copies.

Most Read