Review by John Augustine

How do you select the next good book you want to read? Serious readers once consulted the New York Times bestseller list, but it seems a poor guide nowadays. The paper's Sunday book review is still helpful, though I prefer the New York Review of Books for its more thorough and thoughtful articles, and the New Yorker does a nice job on one or two books each week. As you've probably deduced from these title, New York City is still the capital of American publishing.

Maybe you're lucky enough to belong to a book club, which can bring you not only good recommendations but an audience of sharing readers. Even one good friend who loves to read can be an invaluable resource, and if you have three or four reading friends, you're rich.

The prize winners are other source to consult. There's an avalanche of literary prizes every year—many of them are the consolation writers receive instead of actual money. But consider the grand prizes for a moment. The Nobel often brings to our attention international writers we have never read. The Booker is a British prize with a strong track record—Booker novels are almost always worth reading, and some of my favorite authors, including McEwen, Ishiguro, and Atwood have been honored.

But you'll remember that this column is dedicated to the art of biography, so for that we turn to the two big American prizes, the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The Pulitzer has a special category for biography, while the National Book Award honors a work in general non-fiction among its prizes. These awards are determined by a jury, a panel of distinguished writers and experts, so of course, they almost never agree. This is actually quite helpful, since nearly every year we get two good reading recommendations for "best novel," two for best non-fiction, and so on.

Except in 2010, that didn't happen. Stunningly, the two major American prizes for non-fiction went to the same book. How's that for a recommendation?

Now, if you'd asked me three years ago if I was waiting with unbridled anticipation for a large biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt to appear, I would have said no. Businessmen aren't my favorite subject, and all I knew of Vanderbilt was that he was a New Yorker who made a whole lot of money. How interesting could that be? When such a book actually appeared, I put it off to pursue more romantic characters.

But then came the clincher. A good friend with impeccable reader's judgment said casually, "You should read the Vanderbilt book. It's very good." Well, I don't know how you choose your next good book, but that was enough for me. And what do you know, the Pulitzer and National Book juries and my friend were right, so now I pass the recommendation on to you.

The book is The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles, and it's just a terrific job. He takes a thorough and reasonable look at the old monster and illuminates him beautifully.

It turns out that Vanderbilt was a farmer's son who rose from humble beginnings to conquer the financial world. How did he do it? I'm reminded of the military strategy attributed to Confederate general Forest, "I get there fustest with the mostest." Vanderbilt seized the new technology of his age, steam power, and made a fortune first in steamships and later in railroads. He was kind of like a steamboat himself: big, powerful, and explosive. Rising up in the age of Jacksonian democracy, he shared Andrew Jackson's primary strength: he was absolutely fearless. More than that, he was one of the "fustest" Americans to understand corporations and how to use them. His boats and trains may have inaugurated the Age of Speed, but his financial acumen transformed American business forever. All the other tycoons—Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller—came after him.

Stiles leavens his business explanations with literary asides, quoting Melville, Whitman, and Twain when appropriate. I suspect he might have heard the echo of Scott Fitzgerald's doomed novel The Last Tycoon when he chose the title. Considering that his previous book was a biography of the outlaw Jesse James, anything is possible.

John Augustine's Lifelines is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© John Augustine, 2012