#75) Book review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

This is an unusual biography, not just because of the unique story of its subject.  It is a biography by a writer who had nearly unlimited access to his subject, whom he interviewed forty times in preparation for the book.  It’s also a rare example of a biography that was written with the knowledge that the subject was near the end of his life.  As Jobs tells Isaacson near the end of the narrative, “I wanted my kids to know me…when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died…[t]hey’d get it all wrong.  So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”

Isaccson and Jobs knew each other but it was only when Jobs realized his cancer was potentially terminal that he enlisted Isaacson to write his story.  Isaacson points out an interesting irony: while Jobs was known as, for lack of a better term, a control freak, he specifically declined authority on what went into this book or stayed out of it; he didn’t want the bio to “seem like an in-house book.”

The result is an overall positive, inspiring reading experience.  Isaacson takes us into Jobs’s childhood and youth in Silicon Valley, where the personal computer revolution was beginning.  Seen historically as the property of institutions and corporations, computers were being used by members of the counter-culture as a means of personal expression.  With Steve Wozniak, Jobs quickly makes Apple into a success, but pays the price with his own ego and arrogance, leading to his banishment from the company in 1985.  In the ’90s, Jobs discovers a digital imaging company called Pixar and helps them merge with Disney to create computer-generated animation before returning to Apple and spearheading the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Isaacson’s in-depth interviews with Jobs provide insight.  Apple products have a reputation as being particularly intuitive and an early pilgrimage to India instilled in Jobs the value of intuition.  “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing…[t]hat’s had a big impact on my work.”

We also get a sense of how Jobs viewed electronics as having human characteristics.  For example, the handle on the iMac is described as “approachable.  It’s intuitive.  It gives you permission to touch.  It gives a sense of deference to you.”  One sees the roots of the Pixar mentality of giving inanimate objects human souls, such as in “Wall-E” and “Toy Story.”

Yet there are a few flaws that hold the book back from being truly great.  Isaacson tends to go into a lot of technical detail about the computer designs, the various business deals between Apple, Pixar, Disney and Microsoft and other less-exciting subjects without making them seem particularly interesting.  Some of the visits to the bargaining table are rendered vividly; Isaacson doesn’t hold back when describing Jobs’s various tantrums or his “hero/shithead dichotomy”.  For the most part though, Isaacson failed to get me too excited about whether Jobs received 4 or 5 points on a Pixar deal or the difference between the circuit boards of the Apple II or the Lisa.  Isaacson also doesn’t elaborate in areas that could probably use more detail. In describing the unveiling of the iPhone, he says, “In a career of dazzling product presentations, this may have been the best.”  Yet he spends only half a page describing the event.  (Isaacson devotes a whole chapter to the launch of the Macintosh, describing the seminal “1984” commercial and the unveiling of the computer; here, he is at his strongest as a narrator, artfully building up the level of excitement throughout the chapter.)

The book also could have been more detail oriented.  Usually details bore the crap out of me; I prefer to enjoy the big picture than to fuss over i’s being dotted and t’s crossed. That said, this is a biography of someone whose attention to detail was extreme.  Isaacson’s writing style is frequently awkward and lacks the type of flow that Jobs would have wanted.  The most notable example is that many sentences often start with “but” or “so”; in the index, the Beatles’ album “Abbey Road” is misspelled “Abby.” Is it forgivable to make a few mistakes in a nearly 600-page book? Almost everyone would say yes–but Jobs, at least the man portrayed by Isaacson, would have noticed and said something.

Needless to say, a book about a figure as influential as Steve Jobs shouldn’t just be a sketch and on the whole Isaacson’s tome does the man justice.  Readers who are deeply interested in the details of Jobs’s life and perhaps have an interest in computer technology, business and other subjects covered in detail will find everything they want here.  Those who are more casually interested in Jobs and want to learn more about the broader aspects of his life might be better served with Wikipedia.  For my part my experience with this book – which lasted almost three months, including three trans-continental plane trips – was hit or miss.  At times it resembled the bulky, awkward feel of the PCs that Jobs saw as the enemy throughout his career.  At times Isaacson hits the nail on the head and reading the book was the intuitive, Zen, naturally flowing experience Jobs desired all of his products to deliver.

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