A sharp, illuminating history of ideas showing how America has wrestled with birth, childhood, work, marriage, old age and death.
Brilliantly written and engaging throughout, the latest from New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, 2011, etc.) is about how American society reacts to change. The author starts with the perfect metaphor: In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley created a popular board game called Life. The game had long existed in earlier versions, but Bradley gave it a capitalist spin, changing it from a game of good versus evil to one that “rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance.” From there, Lepore tackles conception and how the famous pictures of a fetus in Life in the mid ’60s fostered the relatively modern idea of “being unborn as a stage of human life, a stage that was never on any board game.” The author shows how E.B. White’s surprisingly controversial novel Stuart Little created a small revolution in a country that has always worshipped childhood; she sees it as “an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture.” Lepore's topics are broad, and they lead her into many interesting byways—e.g., how eugenics was once considered a perfectly progressive idea and how contraception once seemed to threaten society in ways even Rick Santorum has not imagined. She also considers the legacy of Karen Ann Quinlan, the brain-dead young woman whose case helped foment arguments for both the right to die and the right to life, and discusses her visit to the creepy laboratory of cryogenics founder Robert C.W. Ettinger.
A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.