Book Review: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

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Most of the books I review on this blog are business books. They’re about how to do business and leadership better. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow is different.

It’s different because it’s not a business book. It’s a biography. But it’s only a little different, because it’s about one of the great business leaders of all time.

Rockefeller is a fascinating subject. As Kris Kristofferson wrote about Johnny Cash: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” This biography is not only Rockefeller’s story. You also will learn more about human beings and the world we live in than you might from a business book.

Let’s start with Rockefeller. He was a devout Baptist who lived by his beliefs. He was giving away a large portion of his income when he didn’t have much. His family and people who knew him well thought of him as kind and generous. That’s true.

By reputation, though, he was one of the most rapacious of the robber barons. That’s true, too. Rockefeller was a human like the rest of us. He often fooled himself about the impact of his actions or why so many people despised him.

Ron Chernow walks a middle path between two kinds of biographies about Rockefeller. Ida Tarbell’s biography painted him as almost the devil incarnate. Allan Nevins’s biography painted Rockefeller as a secular saint.

Another reason to read this biography is that Rockefeller was the driving force behind two modern innovations. He’s associated with developing the trust, but his impact was much larger. Rockefeller also pioneered many things we now think of as characteristics of the modern corporation.

Rockefeller also set a new standard for philanthropy and developed a new way of giving. Things he did for the first time are now common practice.

Rockefeller’s financial giving affected institutions we don’t normally associate with him or his family. I’m from New York City, so I knew about Rockefeller Center. I didn’t know about the family’s role in creating the Cloisters or the Museum of Modern Art. I had no idea that Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago or that his son arranged to give away lands that became part of our national parks.

There’s one more thing that you’ll learn when you read this book. Like every generation, we think that we live in the most challenging times. But other generations had their challenges too. Chernow’s biography lets you see how legislation, business practice, trends in thought, and sheer luck played out over a century. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History does not repeat but it does rhyme.” Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller will introduce you to a lot of those rhymes.

In A Nutshell

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. may seem daunting at 800 pages, but if you make the effort, you’ll reap several benefits. You’ll gain insight into one of the great leaders of American business and world history. You’ll learn about his humanity, his strengths and his faults, and the way they interact much as they do in each of us. And you’ll learn about how business and society interact to form the world that we know.


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