Book Review: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
I’ll just say this right upfront: I’ve never been a big fan of biographies. When it comes to books, most of my interest in them has often swayed largely towards fiction, or to those that deal with the making-of aspect or analysis of the Entertainment Industry, or Art-Based Mediums.
The last two biographies I read were Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (by Neal Gabler), and Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (by David Michaelis). Both Walt Disney and Charles M Schulz were two men of the arts who greatly inspired me growing up, but what made these biographies so tempting to me, was that Gabler and Michaelis had been given exclusive access to personal materials from these men. However, in the end, their books seemed to show men of creative brilliance, yet distant to family and friends around them. Naturally, the families of both men decried their portrayals.
Walter Isaacson has written biographies on people such as Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. It was these biographies that caught Steve Jobs’ eye, and had him call upon Isaacson to write a biography on him. Unlike biographies done long after the subject has passed away, Jobs was cooperative with Isaacson, giving him interviews and insight into his creative processes. As well, interviews were conducted with those close to Steve, and those who he had readily ticked off over the years.
It wasn’t easy for me to accept Walt Disney or Charles M Schulz to be creative-yet-selfish people. With someone like Steve Jobs, I could easily accept it. I’ve met a couple people in my lifetime that were very similar to Jobs: they had a creative drive that often made them narrow their eyes at a convoluted and backwards world, and all their brain could think of was, “how can this be made better?”
Jobs’ quest for perfection would often push many people to give more than 100%, and turn out products that were not just flash-in-the-pan. An Apple product (under Jobs’ supervision) was something that was impressively designed inside and out…but often with the caveat that everything was ready to go: a closed system that could not be tampered with (and the packaging had to be equally spectacular).
Unlike the Disney or Schulz biographies, Isaacson’s writing style is very intriguing. While some chapters deal with the development of Apple’s hardware and software, technical jargon is kept to a minimum, and is written in a way that most non-techies can (probably) understand. One has to wonder if Isaacson tried to channel Jobs’ feel for simplicity when writing the chapters. Each chapter provides a nice level of information that never really feels like its welcome is overstayed.
Biographers (I’ve noted) usually hit on one central idea/theme that is a ‘constant’ with their subject. In this case, Isaacson goes with the “Reality Distortion Field.” Those who worked with Jobs are well aware of this strange phenomena, and a whole chapter is even turned over to its dissection. In short, it was a way for Jobs to will himself or others to believe something was possible…even if people said it was impossible.
There are a few areas where it feels that Isaacson could have given us a few more opinions. While quotes are given from interviews with Jobs’ wife Laurene, mention of their children is used sparingly, and no direct quotes are taken from them. This could fit in with what Jobs told Isaacson about one of his reasons for wanting to participate in the writing of a biography about himself:
“I wanted my kids to know me,” he said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
Isaacson’s stylings definitely make the book to be about Steve Jobs, and not Steve Jobs & Family. However, it is rather refreshing to read something that doesn’t just turn into a multi-page lovefest. Jobs gave no requests to make the biography to portray him as a saint, and Isaacson definitely does a great job in showing us a man teetering between creative genius, and hard-@$$ed taskmaster. Jobs could be known to be scathing to reviews or work that criticized him and Apple’s products, and one has to wonder if he had lived, how soon afterwards Isaacson would have received a phone call from Jobs, berating him for something that didn’t gel with him.
Steve Jobs has been one of the first biographies that made me eager to keep turning pages. I was on vacation in San Francisco, and downloaded the 80-page sample from iBooks. After an hour or two of reading, I then made my first full-length book purchase from iBooks (prior to this, I had eagerly downloaded the short story Mile 81, by Stephen King). When I wasn’t touring Museums or seeing the sights around the San Francisco area, I was reading the biography. Even the television in my hotel room stayed silent throughout my entire trip.
Even if you’re not a fan of Apple’s products, Steve Jobs is a very interesting read, and I think will cause people (like myself), to seek out the other works of biographer Walter Isaacson. It is also worth noting, that this book could very well be Steve Jobs 1.0. In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Isaacson said that he has considered expanding the book with either an extensively annotated version, or to include an addendum in regards to the details and reactions in the wake of Jobs’ passing.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci