What We’re Reading: Fur, Fortune and Empire

The Gist: 100 years before Brooke Astor was born, and 200 years before her children looted her bank accounts, John Jacob Astor was still nouveau riche. As the furry emblems on the walls of the Astor Place subway stop attest, he made his fortune on the backs of beavers. And though the scale of his fur trading was unprecedented, the business is as old as colonialism itself.

Author: Eric Jay Dolin
Publisher: Norton
Page Count: 464
Pages Read: 160 (with some skipping around)


Does It Work? In fits and starts. Astor doesn’t arrive until 200 years—and 188 pages—have passed us by, and though there are a handful of colorful characters in the chapters leading up to him, none seizes the imagination like New York’s first tycoon—a man who, near death, said that if he’d been able to do it all over again, “I would buy every foot of land on the Island of Manhattan.” We know how you feel, Jake.

Best Moment So Far: “The dawn of the seventeenth century was a horrible time for beavers,” Mr. Dolin informs us at the start of chapter two, before going on to a surprisingly compelling description of the little critters’ physiology. Did you know that beavers’ teeth sharpen themselves and never stop growing, meaning that a misaligned tooth will eventually “impale and kill the beaver by puncturing its skull”? We didn’t, but we’re glad we do now.

Odds We’ll Finish It: 7/1. Our enthusiasm for feats of capitalist daring, and the environmental destruction that comes with them, has departed with the holiday weekend. 


What We’re Reading: Fur, Fortune and Empire