Sunday, December 4, 2011

Steve Jobs's bio and what nobody is really talking about

I've just finished Walter Isaacson's book on Jobs, which yielded surprisingly little new material about one of America's most controversial and ruthless businessmen. First, we were all well acquainted with the dark side of the Apple cofounder's persona. That he threw tantrums and belittled less-than-stellar work by employees was well known for decades.

What I didn't anticipate was how closely he tried to shape his image. Beneath that gruff, insanely strange exterior lurked an amazingly manipulative fellow (and I don't just mean his exhortations to spur his employees to make the products "perfect").

He apparently granted Isaacson access to the last two years of his life simply because he believed he was something of a chosen one. The author previously wrote books about Einstein and Benjamin Franklin and Jobs apparently thought he'd be a natural third choice in a series about great Americans. This says at least something about Jobs' out-sized ego, if nothing else. But Franklin, Einstein, and Jobs does not quite have the euphony that he had hoped for.

Was Jobs a genius? Hardly. The term is bandied about in the book so often that the hype begins to hurt your eyes. He was an inventor in that his name is on numerous Apple patents, but he never did any of the heavy lifting. Jobs was a demanding taskmaster, and had a brilliant eye for high-tech product design. Sure, he actually was a tough, in-your-face negotiator when he had to step up to other ego-manical businessmen like Disney's Michael Eisner. He knew how to make a deal, often to his company's advantage. He had tremendous drive; he was able to re-invent his career after being ousted from his beloved company and laying an egg with a stillborn computer with a miniscule market.

Where Isaacson really falls short is that he fell for Jobs's long, subtle con. He was given "access," which meant "more than 40 interviews" in the course of two years. This means he probably had many informal conversations that were perhaps on the record but not very revelatory. There are precious few direct quotes resulting from these talks, so either Isaacson was shy about turning on his tape recorder or taking notes in full view of his subject, or Jobs was incredibly boring and utterly without deep insight during his most expansive moments. Of course, geniuses are allowed to be dull (in some cases, it may be required). But they usually are deep thinkers. Jobs had few deep thoughts, at least within the pages of this book. Mostly, he's shaping a superficial narrative feeding his legacy. Oh yes, he tells Isaacson that he doesn't expect to read the book until it's published, as if that were to ensure that the result would not be a hagiography that no reader would take seriously.

One of the biggest shortcomings of this effort has to do with Jobs's personal fortune. Reportedly, he left an estate of $8.2 billion, which puts him in the pantheon of the very rich. Isaacson had almost no interest in where Jobs wanted this money to go after he died. Yes, he does say that Jobs was not known for his philanthropy. But he never poses a direct question about it. Why not? If Jobs had no desire to give it away, then this should have been made clear. Or, if he had plans and didn't want to disclose them, then that, too, should have been reported. I'm not sure if this makes the biographer look worse than his subject, but it's certainly a critical element in his life that demands some sort of explanation.

Maybe Jobs really wanted this to remain secret so we would think he's a cheap son-of-a-bitch, only to have his widow set up a foundation to give most of it away. If that's the case, and Isaacson knew it, then he's done a disservice to his readers. If not, he's been had.

The reviews of this first detailed look into his life were largely positive, and I'm still wondering why nobody has taken the work to task. Even The New York Review of Books had a tepid analysis.

A word about my personal literary food chain. If it's a book I'm likely to keep (Ron Chernow on George Washington, for example), I buy the hard cover. If it's a book I want to read but am not in a hurry to do so, I wait for the paperback. If I'm anxious to read it and am fairly certain there isn't a place for it in my library, I download it on my Kindle. At the very lowest priority -- a book I'll read but will never keep -- I borrow a copy. I'm glad the Jobs biography I read just went back to the New York Public Library.


  1. Haven't read it so I can't really comment (and now I likely will not), but you are being modest as well by not disclosing your own bona fides as the author of "Woz."

  2. I'm sure there are links like Aspen Institute or something that binds the 2 guys together. Mutual admiration society? Great job Doug. The book hierarchy reveal at the end was worth the wait.

  3. Interesting author's perspective here. Though I've never known any billionaires personally; one characteristic of all the hyper successful (financially) people I've come across is they tend to be blind to major options or paths they could be going down (eg philanthropy) knowing that in the end, with little or no input from themselves it would be taken care of.

    Consumer electronics and special relativity are entirely different domains, agreed :-).