For fear of immediately turning into a crotchety old man, I have for years held back the ever growing urge to start reading biographies. It is the classic fate of every grandpa or dad who swears he doesn’t really read to house an entire stack of WW2 or Civil War biographies hiding in the attic somewhere. I know my own grandpa burned through at least two or three General Patton biographies every year but wouldn’t think of touching a novel or God forbid a book of poetry.

And so it was with trepidation that I picked up T.J. Stiles absolutely mind-blowing biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt THE FIRST TYCOON. If you’ve ever visited this blog, you may recognize Vanderbilt’s crusty old literary face as our emblem and logo: after all, Vanderbilt is my alma mater, and I am a die-hard loyalist of my beloved university. Mostly, I wanted to read about the origins of my school, how Vanderbilt came to give money to Nashville, of all places, and in the end I really learned all about the rise of capitalism and the Stock Exchange in the mid to late 1800s.

Author T.J. Stiles

Stiles’ book reads quickly and easily while packing in as much information about Cornelius and Morgan and Gibbons and the rest of the characters so that the story takes on the pace of a novel or a work of historical fiction; meanwhile, in the back, if you want to cross-check all of his research and references, everything is there.

As a former New Yorker, I, too, loved this account of a nascent wharf community bustling around the ever-expanding streets of Lower Manhattan. Imagine a young Vanderbilt sailing across New York Harbor on his own boat, charging pennies or quarters or whatever, and stumbling into the wonderful chaos of New York City emerging in its own right as a worldly center of commerce.

During the Christmas season, highly recommended for Dads and Grandpas alike, who never claim to read but secretly love the thought of opening a biography of a bearded old swashbuckler like Vanderbilt. Anchor Down! At Powell’s and Elsewhere.