"The fact is that I live in the world post-Vanderbilt: a better understanding of his influence on the world won't drastically impact how I live in it."
Your perspective on nonfiction is interesting. Don't you think that to some degree by understanding history and the influence of an individual can better help us or our future? Wouldn't that account as changing your viewpoint? For example: the scope and sequence of Identity(how it influences)--> decisions/actions-->history-->judgement/memory/legacy-->choosing to participate in the world?
I didn't mean to give the wrong impression. First of all, I love reading nonfiction. I especially love nonfiction that is audacious enough to endeavor to be good writing.
And I didn't mean to suggest that I don't value lessons learned from history. Of course there is value in understanding the influence of a particular life or era on our world today. Whether learning from the past successes or failures of others, or simply acknowledging the importance of a given life--like Vanderbilt's--for the sheer magnitude of its lasting influence on the future.
Vanderbilt's influence hovers over the life of any American today. I can't imagine what our economy would have looked like today had Vanderbilt not had the influence he did in his time. My point is that his life has already impacted mine to such an extent (and would have even if I'd never picked up this book), I can't expect T.J. Stiles to shed so much light on Vanderbilt that my life will be more deeply impacted by this particular historical figure.
With a piece of fiction on the other hand, or even a lesser-known historical subject, I have a little more room to expect the writing to actually change how I function. I just don't want to ask that much of Vanderbilt, after he's had such an impact already.