Review: Inside Jobs? Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs
November 5, 2011
In his biography of Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson makes it clear that Jobs was given no control over the book’s content. In fact, there is a morbid joke mentioned several times in the biography: Jobs said he wouldn’t even read the book until a year after it was published. Jobs knew that spreading pancreatic cancer was going to kill him well before that year was up – his impending death gives the biography a visceral poignancy and proximity – and Jobs died a few weeks before the book was even published, on Oct. 24.
But one hopes that Jobs at least got a copy of the book to hold and look at and admire before he died. Jobs was a product guy; that was his art – envisioning and making things that people could touch and use and interact with. Fully in the character portrayed by Isaacson, Jobs didn’t care so much how he came off in the story, as long as people associated him with an excellent product. He thus asked that the original book design – to which he no doubt applied the word “sucked,” his favorite word – be scrapped, and he be allowed to create the cover. Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, assented, and the product has the clean, simple, black-and-white look Jobs was passionate about. (Round off the corners and it looks like an Apple product.) Even the name of the book – “Steve Jobs” – drops the cluttered and superfluous subtitles of Isaacson’s past biographies (“Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”; “Kissinger: A Biography”).
The photo of Jobs, which takes up almost the entire cover, presents him as dominant, visionary and smartly put together. Jobs’ stare jumps off the page, and it is easy to see him as the messianic figure whose most distinguishing possession, noted by everyone who knew him, was the “reality distortion field” – a belief that even the most fundamental rules don’t apply to him, and an ability to cause those around him also to not allow themselves, temporarily at least, to be constrained by time, physics and rational thinking. If there were a cartoon bubble over Jobs’ photo (there wouldn’t – way too crowded a design), it would say, “Yes, I may be dead, and this may be just a picture, but don’t think for a second that I’m not influencing you.” And he is: readers are picking up the book in droves, and “Steve Jobs” is topping bestseller lists.
As for what is between the covers, Jobs would have liked at least one aspect of the book: its user-friendliness. The 571 pages breeze by with no glitches (with one glaring, but not overly consequential exception: the unnecessary, generally awkward looking and sounding subtitle headings). “Steve Jobs” is almost perfectly linear. It makes immediate, intuitive sense in its lack of complications – the very goal Jobs had in mind for every product he envisioned.
But also like an Apple product, built to be closed and tamper-proof, “Steve Jobs” doesn’t really allow us to get inside. The biography was originally scheduled for release in March 2012; when it became apparent that Jobs was going to die before then, the publication date was moved up. And it has that feel, of something a bit rushed. Isaacson, thorough in details – the book is based on interviews with some 40 of Jobs’ associates, and numerous conversations Isaacson had with Jobs himself – doesn’t engage much in reflection. We don’t get a whole grasp of the world beyond Jobs and Apple – exactly how did iTunes save the music business? – nor do we get a handle on the inner Jobs.
For instance, Jobs is presented as being, very often, a complete asshole – berating employees, ignoring family matters, lying, taking credit for other’s accomplishments, habitually parking in handicap spots. But on the question of why, and what did Jobs himself make of these tendencies, the information is scant. Jobs was known to delay a product from coming to market so that it could be perfected. The opposite is true of “Steve Jobs.” Might I suggest “Steve Jobs 2.0,” a rewrite that allows time for deeper reflection and ideas?
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Still, Isaacson accomplishes the commendable trick of making a reader think, “Well, of course a biography of Steve Jobs is going to be fascinating; how could it not?” Jobs’ story is rich, multi-layered and full of Hollywood twists and tragedies: the adopted kid who turns out to be preternaturally intelligent, curious and detemined; the teenager who absorbs both the ’60s counterculture and the emerging tech world of northern California; the young adult who chases spiritual practices of meditation and Buddhism, but seems unconcerned about putting them into use with family and friends. And most compellingly, the visionary businessman who, as Isaacson points out, had a direct, practically planet-altering impact on six distinct industries (personal computers, animated films, music, phones, publishing and tablet computing). Oh, and Jobs was also instrumental in Apple’s advertising, retailing, product unveilings, packaging and architecture – all notable accomplishments in themselves.
Jobs’ particular genius was not on the tech side, but on the vision end, of seeing a world that did not yet exist, and then having the arrogance, single-mindedness and bulldog personality to create the future he saw. Jobs didn’t see himself as a businessman – he seems not to have cared much about money or material objects – but as an artist, inspired more by Bob Dylan (mercurial, ever-evolving, moody), than by IBM (complacent, boring). Instead of music, his art was the product, and his creations – the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPad – might be every bit as revolutionary as “Like a Rolling Stone.” By book’s end, Jobs has become a captivating figure, and despite his jerk character, you are rooting for him, even tearing up as fights cancer in his own idiosyncratic manner.
“Steve Jobs” is no achievement of technical genius. But Isaacson was sharp enough to start with one supreme product, then stick to it: a biography of Steve Jobs.