Walter Isaacson’s book on Apple founder & CEO Steve Jobs is a fairly long book. It’s not exactly a thriller either, especially since I know how it ends. As a result it took me a while to plow through it. I tended to read it in bursts of 40 or 50 pages over a few days then maybe put it aside for a while.
As a result, I ended up reading a bunch of other auto/biographical works at the same time. And there are some interesting parallels.
Ozzy Osbourne’s I Am Ozzy and Tony Iommi’s Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath are both great books. Like Jobs they are deranged lunatics who somehow managed to find a way to turn their obsessions into a career. Iommi in particular, the driven, somewhat cold, productive one, seems like an interesting guy to contrast with Jobs. I also read the new graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman (review), another creative non-conformist, a guy who definitely found his own driven way in life. And oddly, the whole bunch of them are practical jokers. Who knew?
And right now I’ve just started Frank Brady’s new bio of Bobby Fischer, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness with Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22 high on the to-read list. In some ways, Fischer and Jobs seem closest in personality among all the people I’ve read about recently. Obsessed, driven, hard-working, prickly, deranged (Fischer way more than Jobs, of course), people that were both incredibly easy to love while at the same time incredibly hard to like. HItchens and Jobs also had fierce, uncompromising, “I’m right you’re wrong” mindsets that set them apart from others.
So, I like books about nutjobs. So what?
Yeah, nutjob. Steve Jobs was one. A brilliant, one of a kind person but not exactly an easy man to like, even if he seemed very easy to love.
And this is the story you get in Isaacson’s biography. It’s definitely not a “technical biography” in any sense. It’s not a business biography either, really. The focus isn’t so much on Apple or Apple products, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book. Very much like Isaacson’s Einstein bio (review), it’s really journalistic, focusing on what happened, when and to whom. Like I said at the beginning, there’s not the narrative or intellectual drive that a different book could have had, but we have what we have.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t ultimately enjoy the book. I did, very much so. In fact, I often found Jobs’ oddball story oddly touching. So often he seemed to want to be a better father or brother or husband, but somehow managed to turn away. And perhaps the touching part of it was that this man who was so hard to like was able to sustain those loving relationships, to have the love reflected back to him that he found so hard to show to others. And the love came not just from people close to him but from complete strangers all over the world.
This is one of those books where I took pages and pages of notes while I was reading it, almost planning out a detailed, analytical review with a detailed summary of the main events and the salient points. Where I was going to draw some larger lesson for libraries and science out of the lessons of Steve Jobs’ life.
But that’s not going to happen. Somehow this seems a better book to review impressionistically. There have been tons of more detailed reviews and there’s no shortage of information on Jobs’ personal and business lives, both positive and negative. If those are what you are looking for, I’ll leave it up to you to find it.
But maybe a quote or two to finish:
When I went to Pixar, I became aware of a great divide. Tech companies don’t understand creativity. They don’t appreciate intuitive thinking, like the ability of an A&R guy at a music label to listen to a hundred artists and have a feel for which five might be successful. And they think that creative people just sit around on couches all day and are undisciplined, because they’ve not seen how driven and disciplined the creative folks at places like Pixar are. On the other hand, music companies are completely clueless about technology. They think they can just go out and hire a few tech folks. But that would be like Apple trying to hire people to produce music. We’d get second-rate A&R people, just like the music companies ended up with second-rate tech people. I’m one of the few people who understands how producing technology requires intuition and creativity, and how producing something artistic takes real discipline. (p. 397)
Some people say,”Give the customer what they want”. But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said,”If I’d asked customer what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘faster horse!” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. (p. 567)
A couple of lessons worth learning?
I usually end these reviews with an idea of what kinds of library collections I think the book in questions would be appropriate for. In this case, it’s simply a case that any library that serves an adult reading audience would do well to get this book. I’m sure even many high school or middle school libraries would find this book has some takers.
Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 630pp. ISBN-13: 978-1451648539