This weekend I finally polished off Walter Isaacson’s big book (570 pp. of text) Steve Jobs, a 2011 biography of the tech entrepreneur, design genius, and prickly human being. I’m not sure why I took it from the library—I have a feeling a reader suggested it—but I’m glad I did, as I found it an excellent description of the man and his short life (he died at 56 of pancreatic cancer in 2011, two weeks before Isaacson published the book).
It’s the first biography I’ve read that seems to be cast in an interview format: that is, much of the text involves quotes from people who interacted with Jobs, which, woven together, bring the book to life (Isaacson had more than 40 interviews with Jobs alone, up to right before he died). Two aspects of Jobs stick out:
a.) The man was a technical genius, devoted to producing products that people didn’t know they needed, integrating those products into a seamless whole (including proprietary software), and controlling the entire supply chain from idea to device, including the factories making the materials for his products as well as the casings of his computers and iPods, to the notion (and design) of the Apple stores themselves. No detail was too small: he worried for weeks, for instance, about the nature and color of the plastic encasing the first Macintosh. His explicit aim was to meld art and technology, creating a beautiful product that was not only sui generis, but one that was easy to use and gave pleasure to the user. Here is a list of the products that, according to Isaacson, “transformed whole industries” (pp. 565-566):
- The Apple II
- The Macintosh
- Toy Story and other Pixar blockbutsters
- Apple stores
- The iPod
- The iPhone
- The App Store
- The iPad
- Apple itself, “which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth.”
b.) The man was largely a jerk, at least as portrayed in the book. At once mercurial, charismatic, tyrannical, and hateful, he was fully capable of telling a waitress that the food she served was shit, firing somebody on the spot, and telling his employees that their work was “crap”. He knew this, and said, according to Isaacson, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.” But Isaacson adds, “I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted.” Well, as a determinist I don’t buy it; not unless “he wanted” means changing his style based on environmental influences on him—like other people telling him to shape up. But one can also argue that his personality—the combination of charisma and Manichean authoritarianism—is what allowed him to accomplish what he did. Under “reception” on the Wikpedia article, his colleagues and friends say this about the biography:
A number of Steve Jobs’s family and close colleagues expressed disapproval, including Laurene Powell Jobs, Tim Cook and Jony Ive. Cook remarked that the biography did Jobs “a tremendous disservice”, and that “it didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time.” Ive said of the book that “my contempt couldn’t be lower.” [JAC: he probably meant “higher.”]
Still, even if Isaacson overemphasized the odious side of Jobs—and Jobs told Isaacson to write what he wanted, never vetting anything as Jobs “had no skeletons in his closet that couldn’t come out”—the biography is well worth reading. I came away with the sense that I’d encountered a once-in-a-lifetime character, and would dearly have liked to have met him. He certainly has changed my life, as I’ve never used any computers or music devices that weren’t made by Apple. And you’ll never use your Apple computer or iPad again without thinking of the man behind it.
The book was #1 on Amazon in the year it was published, and sold 3 million copies in the U.S. in the first four years alone. I’d recommend it highly; the paperback is selling for only $11.60 (the hardback is $18.69) on Amazon.
Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a routine kidney scan in late 2003. It was one of those rare forms of the disease that isn’t invariably fatal, and had he undergone surgery at the time, he might have lived. But he didn’t want his body “opened up,” and for nine months he sought alternative therapies involving diet, acupuncture, and other forms of useless treatment. He was finally operated on, but the cancer had spread. Nevertheless, he lived another eight years, dying at 56 on October 5, 2011. (Isaacson’s book came out on October 24th.) Who knows what he could have come up with had he undergone that first operation in time (which, of course, stillmight not have worked)?
Below I’ve put his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, which tells three stories about his life that helped make him what he was. It was the only commencement address he ever gave, and he wrote it himself. (The last story is about his cancer, which he’d already had for two years.) This is what Isaacson said about the talk (p. 457):
The artful minimalism of the speech gave it simplicity, purity, and charm. Search where you will, from anthologies to YouTube, and you won’t find a better commencement address. Others may have been more important, such as George Marshall’s at Harvard in 1947 announcing a plan to rebuild Europe, but none has had more grace.
Judge for yourself; it’s only 15 minutes long;
Below is the first half of Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (this is part 1; part 2 is here). He always introduced these products on a darkened stage with one screen, directly demonstrating his devices to the cheers of a worshipful crowd. And he always wore jeans, New Balance sneakers, and a black Issy Miyake turtleneck. There is no script to read from, though of course he’d practiced the presentation.
His cancer recurred the next year, invading his liver and mandating a liver transplant in Tennessee.
And here is a good 60 Minutes interview of Isaacson by Steve Kroft, discussing the book and Isaacson’s view of Jobs. The final anecdote (at 27:20) is also the ending of the book, and is enough to bring you to tears.
If you want a decent one-hour video biography of Jobs, go here.