Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs is a fascinating book, both in how it came to be and how it unfolds, but it’s certainly not your average celebrity puff piece.
Before I kick off: I’m well aware that there’s a segment of the Gizmodo Australia audience that are a bit over reading about Steve Jobs. That’s a fair enough position to take, but I’m going to assume you’re reading this because you’re interested. If not… well, we’ve got everything from a Melbourne Cup App Guide to movie props and even Darth Vader as a banana. Knock yourself out.
I’ve also got to preface this by saying that I’m a huge reader of biographies. Everything from high-end academic essays on prominent figures to trashy supermarket tabloid coverage of terrible celebrities happily falls under my gaze. Biographies are a tough thing to master, simply because you’re not telling fictional stories; you’re writing up (and trying to imbue) the essence of the actual people you’re writing about. I read the Kindle version of Steve Jobs, which probably would have infuriated the man — but then I could (and did) read it across a Kindle, iPhone, Android phone and iPad; that kind of thing isn’t possible with iBooks.
When the news first broke that Walter Isaacson would be writing the “official” biography of Steve Jobs, I’ve got to admit that I was rather less than optimistic about what it would be like. If there’s a key trait that defined Steve Jobs, it was control, and controlled biographies — or for that matter, autobiographies — can be the pits. It’s all too easy to use the format to whitewash history, either not mentioning key points of interest or reinterpreting them either through the faulty lens of recollection or by trying to create a new history by demanding that certain things either didn’t happen or were misinterpreted anyway.
To his credit, Walter Isaacson largely appears to have avoided that particular pitfall; this is no celebrity puff piece book. Indeed, it could be said that it’s almost harsh in its treatment of its central figure, although as the biographical narrative progresses, it’s clear that the points Isaacson makes about Jobs’ personality aren’t ones that he’s reached after a small amount of research.
Isaacson got access to Jobs for 40 interview sessions over two years, and it’s clear that he used those interviews as the springboard for much of his further research; often when a key moment in Jobs’s life is detailed via interviews with others, it’ll end up with Jobs’s recollection of the events; not always pretty ones, but fairly honest ones, at least on the surface.
On Jobs The Man
The aspect of Steve Jobs (Italics deliberate, because if you’re going to call your book after your subject, it’s sheer murder to critique clearly) that I found most frustrating was that Isaacson delivers his perspective on Jobs early, and never particularly develops it as a theme. Yes, Steve Jobs details the sequence of his life and the important players within, but most of the characters — including those that Isaacson clearly interviewed at some depth — don’t come across in that much detail, and neither does Jobs himself. Interestingly, one of the figures who does leap out of the page is Bill Gates; he’s someone that obviously had a lot of interaction with Jobs, and Isaacson’s portrayal of Gates is more sympathetic than that of the book’s main protagonist. As an example, Mona Simpson (Jobs’ biological sister) is mentioned but not in a way that gives much of an impression of their ongoing relationship. It’s a marked counterpoint to Isaacson’s treatment that she’s published her own eulogy to her brother; it’s touching reading, but it also illuminates both her relationship with her brother and her own character in ways that Isaacson doesn’t quite manage. In some ways, the photos at the end of the book speak more of Jobs the family man than Isaacson manages.
The abiding feeling that Steve Jobs left me with was that while Jobs was undeniably human and prone to (and often very well aware of) his own failings, he was also a fairly unlikeable character to work with; even close work colleagues such as Jony Ive give accounts as to how he could be openly abusive to those he worked with as a tactic for success. The mantra of control permeated Jobs’ life; there’s a section quite late in the book, where Jobs was essentially in the middle of surgery, barely conscious and refused an oxygen mask. Not because it was faulty, but because he hated the design, and demanded that they bring him five different mask options to choose from. It’s a demonstration of an almost sad need for control that Jobs had (as well as his mania for design), but by the time I’d reached that point of the book, it almost came across as humorously shocking — until I realised I’m reading about a man struggling for his life.
Jobs The Career
Isaacson’s book does a good job of covering the basics of Steve Jobs’s career, much of which is quite public knowledge in any case. As a basic reference in that sense it’s fair but not exceptional, but there’s what I feel can only be seen as a massive missed opportunity there.
Jobs spent 11 years outside of Apple because — as Isaacson’s book very clearly demonstrates — his mania for control was, essentially, out of control in a way that was detrimental to the functioning of the company as a whole. Over that period he changed, matured, failed a lot and then resurfaced as Apple’s logical choice of CEO in 1996. The annoying factor here is that Isaacson treads very lightly over what it was in Jobs — or what Jobs saw in himself — that made the circumstances of 1996 different to those of 1985. Jobs had clearly changed, and there are sections where Jobs talks about his own maturing process, but it’s in the context of things such as musical tastes rather than the internal changes that meant he could lead Apple effectively in 1996 in a way he couldn’t in 1985.
Equally, if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of all things Apple, Isaacson’s book is a little light on detail, unless you like design discussions. It’s clear that Jobs had a mania for design right from the start, and there’s a lot of discussion about his love of rounded rectangles, but significantly less in the way of technical discussions. Admittedly, that kind of thing is more the field of Steve Wozniak (who also gets a very sympathetic portrayal), but those after a more indepth technical discussion won’t find it here.
A Job Well Done?
Isaacson’s book is a compelling read, if that’s what you’re after. Those who didn’t know the broad sweep of Jobs’s career will certainly learn a fair bit about recent technology history. But is that the purpose of a biography? It certainly covers the well-worn and well-known attributes of Steve Jobs’s character, and while there are elements of a driven personality that definitively drove him to the successes he enjoyed, there’s almost an element of this being a cautionary tale; Isaacson’s focus on Jobs’s character paints him as almost unlikeable. Nobody is quite that black and white, and while there are moments of quiet humility sprinkled throughout, they’re limited by the sheer weight of evidence presented otherwise. Ultimately, while I enjoyed reading it, I was left wanting more — but it’s clear that this time, there is no “one more thing”.