A grand tale of an industrial giant

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A grand tale of an industrial giant

"Titan" is a detailed, 700-page biography of the man who, along with Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, defined the robber baron era of the late 1800s in the United States.

The book begins with the birth of a son in 1839 to a ne'er-do-well patent medicine salesman and a deeply religious mother. It chronicles his rise to the top of the oil industry, which first boomed because of the need to find a better way to illuminate homes and offices after whale oil prices skyrocketed. If there is a serious flaw in Mr. Chernow's book, it is the relative lack of information he provides on how Rockefeller started amassing his fortune.

Mr. Chernow lays out the chronology, but there is little substance in his explanation of how this man succeeded in reaching the first plateau, a modest fortune, when so many other entrepreneurs fail. It was not endless drudgery; Mr. Rockefeller is quoted several times as saying he attributed his longevity to an unwillingness to work too hard. Simple luck may be the answer, but that is less than satisfying.

Mr. Chernow is at his best describing how Mr. Rockefeller's religious beliefs guided his life. Mr. Rockefeller believed he was put on the earth to make as much money as he could and then to give away as much as he could. The larger part of the book is devoted to the later period of his life when he withdrew from business and concentrated on philanthropy.

In his description of a rapacious man who genuinely didn't understand why people thought ill of him, and who then gave huge sums away, always worrying about its effectiveness, Mr. Chernow has produced an important addition to understanding the beginnings of the industrial era in the United States.

by John Hoog
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