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Review: Walter Isaacson's 'Steve Jobs'

Chris Rawson
Chris Rawson|@@rawsoncj|October 25, 2011 7:00 PM

I've just finished a marathon session of reading all the way through Steve Jobs on my iPad -- and I'm sure Jobs would have appreciated the odd harmony of people reading his life story on a device he helped create.

After reading his biography, I'm no longer convinced that Steve Jobs would have liked me if we'd ever met in person. At least not at first. More likely, he'd have torn me a new one in our first meeting and told me that I sucked and everything I did was worthless. Then, in our second meeting, he'd have parroted my ideas back at me as though they were his own. It was apparently one of his signature moves, and it probably would have made me want to throw a chair at him.

But even if I had been provoked that far, he most likely would have just bellowed that I should have thrown a better chair.

Reading biographies is perhaps a different experience for me than it is for most people, since I spent most of my Master's thesis examining the concept of truth in biographical works. Most of the memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies I've read have fallen into one of two categories. Either the text was something designed to lionize its subject and make him or her seem larger than life, or else the writer had taken pains to focus on only the parts of the subject's life that fit into a clean narrative arc while leaving everything else on the cutting room floor, an approach that leads to easy and almost cinematic storytelling but leaves out much of the facts.

Neither approach to biographical writing strikes me as particularly true; in fact, almost every biography I've read seems to contain about as much actual truth as an episode of Star Trek. The tendency to over-praise or over-dramatize is both pernicious and pervasive throughout the various forms of biographical texts.

Walter Isaacson's 656-page profile of Steve Jobs falls in neither category. It is quite possibly the truest biography I've ever read. In the process of telling the unvarnished truth about Steve Jobs, it dispels much of the myth and magic surrounding the man and his legacy. It does not depict Steve Jobs as the information age's equivalent of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with an iPad in each hand. It would have been easy for some misinformed hack to portray Jobs that way in a quick cash-in "unauthorized" biography soon after Jobs's death, but it also would have been closer to fiction than biography.

What Isaacson gives us instead is a portrait of a man with keen insight, brilliant powers of observation, and a stubborn determination to "put a dent in the universe." However, the biography also depicts a man with deep flaws, some of which arguably contributed to his early death. It humanizes a man who's spent much of the past decade as a living legend in multiple arenas, and it gives valuable insight into the person Steve Jobs was, not just the icon he became.

After reading his biography, I get the sense that no matter how brilliant Steve Jobs was or how many fundamental shifts in our landscape he spearheaded, in the end, he was as human as the rest of us. It's a testament to Isaacson's skill as a biographer that readers can at last obtain the picture of Steve Jobs as a human being rather than a legend.

Jobs's reputation as a control freak was legendary, yet he relinquished all control over the contents of his biography. It's a surprising move from a man who insisted on so much control over all of his life's projects -- the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad were all born and thrived partially because Jobs refused to cede control over them. Jobs explained his motivations to Isaacson for his atypically hands-off approach to the biography. Partially it was because he wanted his children to know him better, flaws and all. It was also because he wanted to make sure that only someone possessed of all the facts about his life would write his story. "When I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died, and they wouldn't know anything. They'd get it all wrong. So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say."

Jobs's biography manages to allow him to get the last word in many debates. Many of the people who have toasted both him and his achievements will find themselves bearing the brunt of his last barbs against them. Some, like Jobs threatening to go "thermonuclear" on Android, have already been outed. Others are a bit more deeply buried within the text, but once found they're both candid and a bit stunning.

"IBM was essentially Microsoft at its worst," Jobs said, reminiscing about the early days of the personal computer revolution. "They were not a force for innovation; they were a force for evil. They were like AT&T or Microsoft or Google is." My jaw dropped at this quote, but another later on in the book was more alarming. Immediately after heaping praise on his successor, Tim Cook, Steve said, "Tim's not a product person, per se." Considering that at many other points in the book Jobs heaped scorn on people like Bill Gates or John Sculley whom he also considered more concerned with profits than product quality, his unfiltered opinion of Cook's product sensibilities definitely raised an eyebrow.

Much of the biography will be familiar to hardcore Apple enthusiasts. Chapters on the birth of the Macintosh will be familiar to anyone who's read Andy Hertzfeld's recollections at folklore.org, and if you're a regular TUAW reader there won't be too much in the chapters about the iPod, iPhone, or iPad that you haven't already read. Older Apple fans will likely find the earliest chapters about the founding days of Apple not much more than a refresher course. But I suspect that few people will be able to read the entire book and not discover some surprising fact about Steve Jobs that they didn't already know.

If you come into Steve Jobs already hating him, the biography gives you plenty of reasons to hold onto that opinion. If instead you view Jobs as a personal hero, there are plenty of episodes within his life story that might make you reconsider that opinion. Isaacson doesn't shy away from describing Steve Jobs's darker moments or personality deficiencies, some of which border on the downright despicable. To put it lightly, Steve Jobs was not a "people person."

One of his ex-girlfriends read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM and said, "It fits so well and explained so much of what we had struggled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see." Even his closest friends, like Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, noted that Jobs often exhibited a vicious and unnecessary lack of empathy for those around him. The fact that so many people all over the world have been lauding him since his death, both friends and dogged competitors, speaks to the complex and paradoxical nature of Steve Jobs, a man whose greatest goal was to establish empathy between people and technology but who often displayed precious little empathy of his own.

Isaacson's biography of Jobs isn't a character assassination by any means (though I do wonder why the first third of the book dwells so often on Jobs's body odor during the 1970s). That said, I still feel terrifically sorry for any employees who find themselves at the mercy of a supervisor who uses Steve Jobs as a managerial handbook, just like the legions of young would-be entrepreneurs trying to emulate the callous Mark Zuckerberg they saw in The Social Network.

If anyone comes away from reading Steve Jobs thinking that being a leader makes it okay to be an asshole, they'll have missed about 99 percent of the point. Anyone can cut an employee to shreds or throw epic temper tantrums at the slightest provocation, but replicating Jobs's intuition, perfectionism, dedication, and vision is arguably something that only one person in seven billion can manage to pull off.

Steve Jobs is at its core the study of the man himself, but along the way it's also a fascinating history of the genesis, near-death, and resurgence of Apple. It also describes the birth, near-death, and ascendancy of Pixar, with fascinating details I've never read before. As the book follows Jobs through the personal computer revolution, the birth of the Macintosh, his "wilderness years" at NeXT and Pixar, and his return to Apple and subsequent paving over of the landscape for the music industry, cell phones, and tablet computing, Steve Jobs's biography also offers incredibly detailed insights into how our world shifted from the hobbyist computing era of the mid-'70s to the ubiquitous techscape we live in today. Steve Jobs didn't enact any of these revolutionary changes singlehandedly -- his biography takes pains to make that clear -- but he was most assuredly at or near the center of all of them.

Though the book makes his flaws obvious to readers, it also makes clear that we would be living in a very different world if Steve Jobs hadn't set out to put a dent in the universe. Anyone with even a passing interest in Apple's history, and anyone who's ever wondered how so very much about the technology landscape has changed so fundamentally in just 35 years, owes it to themselves to read this book.