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The Blog

Best Books of the Year Lists, Updated (Yet Again)

Update: The First Tycoon continues to appear on best-books-of-2009 lists—and I'm grateful for every one. Here's a revised list, with the addition of the San Francisco Chronicle and Vanity Fair. I might also note that Parade listed it as a last-minute gift idea.

Recommended by both The New Yorker and Parade: That's a nice place to be. I try to combine scholarship with storytelling, and this list of lists suggests I'm not blowing it entirely.

New York Times Book Critic Dwight Garner's 10 Best Books of the Year
New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of the Year
Financial Times's Best Books of the Year
Barnes & Noble Review's Best Lives of 2009
Amazon.com's 10 Best Biographies and Memoirs
Christian Science Monitor's Best Books of the Year
Boston Globe's 8 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
The New Yorker's Reviewers' Favorites from 2009
Washington Post's Best Books of 2009
Philadelphia Inquirer's Editors' Picks for Best of the Year
Barnes & Noble's Best Nonfiction of 2009
Bloomberg's Best Business Books of the Year
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review's Best Books of 2009
Vanity Fair's 2009's 10 Best Books for Holiday Reading Read More 
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The Past as Property

As a biographer, I have concentrated on the nineteenth century. Everyone in my books is long since dead. If they published anything, it's public domain now. But my books aren't.

Laying claim to the past is a tricky thing. The subject himself belongs to no one. Anyone could release a book or movie or television series about Cornelius Vanderbilt or Jesse James without asking my permission. But there's a distinct line between what is public domain, and what belongs to the biographer. There's a great deal of authorship involved in any biography, no matter how old or well known the subject. The greater the originality and depth of work, the greater the author's claim to intellectual property rights.

That work can loosely be broken down into three overlapping categories: research, analysis, and narrative. Read More 
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Best Books of the Year Lists, Updated (Twice)

The First Tycoon continues to make best-of-the-year lists. Not all of them, of course. That's OK with me—it's a good sign for books when not all editors can agree on the best books of the year. But my book has done quite well enough. Note the addition of The New Yorker, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Barnes & Noble, and Bloomberg, too.

New York Times Book Critic Dwight Garner's 10 Best Books of the Year
New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of the Year
Financial Times's Best Books of the Year
Barnes & Noble Review's Best Lives of 2009
Amazon.com's 10 Best Biographies and Memoirs
Christian Science Monitor's Best Books of the Year
Boston Globe's 8 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
The New Yorker's Reviewers' Favorites from 2009
Washington Post's Best Books of 2009
Philadelphia Inquirer's Editors' Picks for Best of the Year
Barnes & Noble's Best Nonfiction of 2009
Bloomberg's Best Business Books of the Year Read More 
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STrib Interview

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a nice interview with me on December 5. You can find it here.

I had a great conversation with Laurie Hertzel, the books editor for the STrib (as it's nicknamed), and it's a shame they couldn't print the whole thing. I would have enjoyed reading through it again. Read More 
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Biographical Malpractice

Dwight Garner, an excellent book critic for the New York Times, blogs about my critique of Edward J. Renehan Jr.'s book, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. You can read Garner's fine post here.

Renehan's book, I believe, is indeed a case of "biographical malpractice," as Garner puts it. It makes demonstrably false claims based on secret sources, which I do not believe actually exist. And yet, the book is still in print, and still on library shelves. That's a real shame. It's damaging the public's knowledge of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a pivotal business figure.

You can read my full comments on this subject on my other blog, hereRead More 
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First Tycoon & the Best Book Lists

(Revised 12/06/09)
It's that time of year when the annual best-books lists being to appear. The First Tycoon appears on some, but hardly all. No shocker there. The least surprising thing about such lists is that no two are alike. In fact, that's a very good thing. It means there are a lot of excellent books being published every year, too many for any two critics to agree upon which handful are the best.

So you won't find me complaining about the lists that have left me out. In fact, I'm as pleased as Dan Rather with a handbook of folksy metaphors to have been picked for the lists I did make. Here they are, so far:

New York Times Book Critic Dwight Garner's 10 Best Books of the Year
New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of the Year
Financial Times's Best Books of the Year
Barnes & Noble Review's Best Lives of 2009
Amazon.com's 10 Best Biographies and Memoirs
Christian Science Monitor's Best Books of the Year
Boston Globe's 8 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
The New Yorker's Reviewers' Favorites from 2009 Read More 
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Video: National Book Award Speech

Here's the presentation of the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction, with my acceptance speech.




T. J. Stiles at the 2009 National Book Awards, Nonfiction Winner from National Book Foundation on Vimeo.

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Meet the Publisher

Writers tend to complain about their presses, especially these days, when the recession is squeezing publishers hard. And, to be honest, often writers have good reason to gripe.

Well, I'm one of the lucky ones. My editor, Jonathan Segal, and publishers, Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage (the latter for paperback), are the best in the business, and I've had a really terrific experience as an author. All the people at every step, from the lowest assistant to Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf, are in it because they love books, and it shows.

Rarely, though, do the people behind a book get the proper attention, and that's too bad. There's a Japanese saying that, loosely translated, what's in front doesn't matter, it's what's out of view that's important. As an author, the one out front, I think that's often true in publishing as well.

Here's a rare tribute those somewhat hidden people behind the book, my editor and publisher, in a column on publishing at Huffington Post. Well deserved, I must say. Read More 
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Vanderbilt and "Dynastic Capitalism"

I'm taking a break from celebrating the National Book Award (see my previous two posts) to examine an issue raised by Steve Fraser, an academic historian who criticized my book in The Nation.

Mr. Fraser asserts that I make excessive claims for Vanderbilt as a pioneer of the modern corporation, and says that Vanderbilt represented "dynastic capitalism," not modern corporate capitalism. I have to disagree.

The key question is whether "dynastic capitalism" is really a different system at all, or just a catchphrase for a company managed by the owner of a majority of its stock (and by his son). Family-owned corporations, and owner-managed corporations, are still a major part of America's capitalist economy. They hardly constitute a separate system from other corporations, even if they are not identical in all respects.

In Vanderbilt's case, he took control of companies with publicly traded stock, stock that continued to be publicly traded under his regime. He also rationalized both the railroad industry and the management of his particular companies.

In reacting to my comments on his review (which you can read here), Mr. Fraser makes much of the fact that Vanderbilt was not hailed as an example of corporate modernization by the great business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Of course not: Chandler had limited information about Vanderbilt, whose career had not been subject to much research prior to my study. And Chandler's work is hardly flawless when it comes to railroads; for example, he confuses fast-freight lines with express companies, two very different things.

In fact, Vanderbilt proved a modernizer in several respects. First, he embarked upon the consolidation of a fragmented railroad network, dotted with small lines originally constructed to meet local needs. Vanderbilt's mergers helped to create one of the first interregional railroad systems. Second, he rationalized the finances of his lines; he largely eliminated floating debt, consolidated outstanding bonds, cleaned out waste and corruption, and generally imposed a sound financial structure on the lines he bought. Third, he and his son William systematized management, creating a new departmental organization, hiring new professional superintendents, and thoroughly rationalizing the management structure of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad in particular, the core of the empire.

One of the signs of the order, efficiency, and rational management of Vanderbilt's lines could be seen in the fact that, amid the depression that began in 1873, when most railroads halted dividends, the New York Central & Hudson River made them automatic, issued quarterly without a special vote of the board of directors.

Mr. Fraser is correct that we must always watch for excessive claims by biographers. In this particular case, however, he is wrong on the facts when he accuses me of the error.

There was, however, one aspect of Vanderbilt's lines that represented an older model of corporate governance. He was an owner-manager; the Pennsylvania Railroad, on the other hand, separated management from ownership, which would be the prevailing corporate model in the decades to come.

But I raise the question of whether this has proved to be a good thing. The managers of the Pennsylvania also pioneered devices for skimming money out of the company (in which they were not large shareholders). The sometimes excessive bonuses that some of today's corporate executives pay to themselves suggest that this pitfall remains very much with us in this model of corporate governance. Vanderbilt, by contrast, took no compensation as company president, but only collected dividends on his stock. Being a majority owner gave him an incentive to soundly manage the company, with an eye toward long-term prospects and consistent profitability.

That doesn't sound like such a bad model these days.

By the way, on my blog about biography-writing, I discuss the question of how to set the parameters for a biography, a question raised by Mr. Fraser's critique. You can find my comments hereRead More 
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E-Books? No beef here.


Some of the reporting of my acceptance remarks for the National Book Award suggests that I "took a swipe" at electronic books. I hope my actual speech, given in full in the previous post, will clear that up. E-books themselves are merely one more format, and I see no harm at all in them, in and of themselves. Rather, my reference to them merely capped my tribute to the overlooked people who make books, and make books matter. At most, I criticize the mistaken impression that some people may be forming with the advent of e-books; there's nothing in my remarks that identifies any harm caused by e-books themselves.

Just read the preceding post, and you'll see what I mean. Read More 
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