Review: ‘Steve Jobs’


Review at a glance: Meet the brilliant terror who spawned Apple and elevated Pixar in a very long, very detailed biography. Fanboys will devour it, but casual readers might want to skim.

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It was either this or a 50-foot high pure white marble statue.

Steve Jobs by Walter IsaacsonReading through “Steve Jobs” is a near-complete primer on the history of Apple (once Apple Computers), the titular hero/villain and glimpses into Pixar, Silicon Valley and modern electronics. Jobs’ ego alone takes up considerable space in the 42 chapters of this comprehensive portrait.

A clear duality emerges from the 656 pages (or 25 hours, as I listened to the unabridged audiobook). Jobs as hero helps bring Apple Computer into being, boosts Pixar’s films into blockbuster territory, transforms Apple from near-bankrupt also-ran to global leader, and bring to the world the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, the iTunes Store, the iPhone and iPad.

Jobs as villain shows him as cutthroat competitor, petulant manager, harsh critic, absentee father, vitriolic colleague, vengeful strategist and master manipulator, for starters. My friend Mike labeled his duality more succinctly as “asshole genius.”

Biographer Walter Isaacson spends years as Jobs’ confidante and shadow, interviewing everyone from longtime colleagues such as Steve Wozniak to one-time lovers such as Joan Baez. Isaacson himself pops up in the narrative occasionally, an odd intrusion but perhaps unavoidable in chronicling a still-living (at the time) figure.

As a lifelong Apple consumer, I appreciated the chronological journey and behind-the-scenes glimpses into how my gadgets came to life. Each reflects some of Jobs’ obsession with fusing design and functionality.

No less fascinating is his fusion of asshole and genius. Numerous accounts show his reflexive tendency to shout down an argument, or failing that, to cry his way out. The man cried a lot, in board meetings, in one-on-one business meetings, in his private life.

Nothing is held back. While seemingly all perspectives are wrung out of one man’s life story, it can make for a long read into Apple product history. Fans of the iPod might enjoy such details, but other readers may start to drift off.

The book itself distinguishes itself through its subject. Among CEOs, Jobs is unique, a true visionary who fought to create a company that would live on without him. Few personalities would willingly participate in their own tell-all story, especially when the subject has so many critics and enemies. Let’s chalk it up to ego.

And it is that ego that drives the book forward. How will Jobs react? What will he do next? How will he get his way, because he almost always does? We explore his infamous Reality Distortion Field, in which his overwhelming charisma seemingly bends the universe to his mighty will. We see his stubborn determination to see his ideas made real, despite considerable bruising of egos and budgets to do so.

And because Isaacson describes the interviews themselves — sitting in Jobs’ living room, accompanying him on a walk — it is as if we’re listening to Jobs as well. A biography sometimes masquerading as “60 Minutes” profile.

The lesson of many life stories is that if you’re going to do something, be the best at it. “Steve Jobs” shows it’s possible to be not only one of the most advanced technological geniuses of all time, but also one of the most ruthless assholes, as well.

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