A person is famous when his or her name is enough to become the title of a best-selling book. A person is iconic when his or her image looking out at the reader on the cover is considered both intimate and a work of art. This holds true for the late American genius Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and the subject of the exhaustive and exhausting authorized biography, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2011, 630 pages).
But in a way, “Jobs” is the last, great project from the man who changed forever the relationship between technology and humanity by shepherding into reality the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPhone and the iPad, among other feats of design and invention. He made Apple ubiquitous.
Though Jobs died last Oct. 5 at the age of 56 after battling pancreatic cancer, he made sure that his children—and perhaps the world—would know as much about him as possible. This is because it was Jobs himself who pursued Isaacson—who had written respected biographies of great innovators such as Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin—to pen the biography. A befuddled Isaacson actually demurred twice until he found out that Jobs was sick, eventually giving in. “Jobs” came out a few weeks after Jobs’ death.
What is clear is that Jobs afforded Isaacson unexpected access, doing more than 40 interviews even as Isaacson interviewed everyone he could find. The result is a comprehensive bio about a contradicted man. “Jobs” is no praise job; in fact, it is surprising how unflattering the book can be at times, but that is the book’s secret, as well. From the very beginning to the end, Jobs surprises and Isaacson takes note. Jobs’ story is far from conventional. Adopted after being abandoned by his American mother and Syrian father, Jobs grew up a smart, strange kid in California with an obsession with computers. Together with another genius, programmer Steve Wozniak, he would found Apple Computers, as well as the groundbreaking Pixar Animation Studios, becoming a multimillionaire in the process, and that was before he would up merchandising iEverything.
But Jobs was also an unpredictable, micromanaging perfectionist who could be manipulative and rude. Isaacson writes about what he called Jobs’ “reality distortion field,” Jobs’ obstinate tendency to recast the inconvenient fact to suit his needs. “He absolutely believed that the normal rules didn’t apply to him,” one executive said. The book described Jobs’ working style as suffering from “his typical empathy deficiency.” He was a ruthless businessman and didn’t get along with many people he worked with and most of the people he worked against, Microsoft’s Bill Gates being a prime example. Another said that “the trait that most stands out is Jobs’ needs to control events.”
Isaacson captured all this set against the development of the many technological innovations Jobs would champion. “Jobs” sometimes loses itself amid the forest of tech talk but Jobs eventually emerges again in either a bad mood or in high spirits. There are emotional highs and depressing lows, and “Jobs” can become similarly heavy, as well. There is a lot to read here about both what Jobs accomplished and who he is, and believe it or not, the latter is actually more interesting. “He is not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation,” Isaacson wrote. “But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated.”
But this may exactly be what Jobs wanted when he initiated the book. He planned even this. After having premonitions that he would die young, Jobs wanted to let those touched by his technology to know of the fascinating, flawed person known for his Issey Miyake turtlenecks, a visionary, as well as a “techno-dictator.” This book, too, is part of his legacy. A compelling portrait of a conflicted genius, “Steve Jobs” is an unflinchingly honest biography that describes the enigmatic man on the book’s cover, a life as iconic as that phone in your pocket and the book’s cover. After all, Steve Jobs helped design that, as well.