What I’m Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan is great biographical writing, and it’s hard to imagine a more intriguing person in the history of American business than John D. Rockefeller. Before reading Titan I knew virtually nothing about this Goliath of industry, besides his incredible wealth. So I was surprised to learn that he was a deeply religious man, whose Baptist disciplines were integral to his work ethic, scrupulous accounting, and staggering generosity. Chernow, in fact, draws a practical connection between the Baptist practice of tithing and acquiring wealth. Tithing requires one to be attentive to how much money one makes and spends—a habit also necessary for intelligent use of money. Rockefeller, of course, took financial shrewdness to previously unexplored heights and spent much of his life trying to figure out how to give it away. (The University of Chicago owes its very inception to a donation of $600,000—and later $80 million—to this devout Baptist.)

From Titan I’m reminded of the destructive force of bitterness, lies, and slander. Besides being generous, Rockefeller also gained a reputation for being ruthless—a cold, heartless man who would trample a widow just to extort her two mites. This unfortunate caricature, as Chernow demonstrates, is, for the most part, wholly unjustified. But it grew from the skewed investigative journalism of Ida Tarbell and McLure’s magazine. True, Rockefeller certainly had his warts. But Chernow’s well-researched book presents Rockefeller as humane, intelligent, and deeply pious, and perhaps reclusive to a fault.

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