‘Steve Jobs,’ Steve Jobs, and me
I’m only through nine chapters of “Steve Jobs,” the Walter Isaacson biography on recently-deceased co-founder of Apple Computer. But I am already enthralled, way more excited than, say, the New York Times‘ Joe Nocera (more on that later).
I’m not going to critique the quality of the story-telling, except to say that I am finding it appropriately understated in the way a writer can get away with when the story itself is so compelling. Even though we knew quite a bit about the famously private Jobs, through Isaacson he reveals and confirms things we didn’t know, or only suspected.
This is to be expected in an authorized biography, especially when, as is the case here, the subject approached and then pursued the biographer. It is also to be expected that there would be some tension and mixed feelings on the part of the biographer, even one so studious a journalist as Isaacson. Unless the subject reveals something utterly horrible there is no way to disprove the negative, that you are helping to spin the story, rather than report it.
The Steve portrayed so far is meaner and nastier than I had imagined — and also infinitely more vulnerable.
Steve Jobs was supposed to be published a month from now, as iSteve. The release date was pushed up but it still didn’t reach print before Jobs died, three weeks ago. No matter. Jobs told Isaacson he wouldn’t read the book for six months, or even a year.
Surely, when he said that, even Jobs must have known that this was a bit of a reality distortion field fiction given what he knew and, more importantly, finally accepted about the true state of his deteriorating health.
Almost as I had began reading the book a funny thought came over me. I suddenly could not imagine this bio coming out when Jobs was alive. I am trying to imagine a world where Steve was still with us and this book was out, and I cannot. Not because it contains tell-all details of the Kitty Kelly or even Bob Woodward variety. Nor can I say exactly why that would seem … inappropriate.
Part of it is almost certainly the vain temptation most of us have to feign psychological insight culled from some obvious clues and a sloppy application of Freudian principles we don’t really understand. Isaacson helps us right away with The Big One: Jobs might have felt abandoned because he was put up for adoption, ergo, sentenced to a life of searching for approval. But the Jobs family made him feel special — Chosen. The precocious and brilliant youngster who would realize, not much later, that he was smarter than his father, seems to have emphasized his non-biological DNA (he pointedly avoided any contact with his biological father).
But what really interests me, in these early pages about a bohemian existence tempered with an innate business sense, are three things I highlighted in my iBooks version (owning this version seemed … appropriate):
- “It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. ‘He loved doing things right. He even cared about the parts you couldn’t see.'”
- Jobs said: “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a powerful thing, more powerful that intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”
- “… he [Jobs] intuitively appreciated the simplicity of Atari’s games. They came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for Atari’s Star Trek game were ‘1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.'”
Scrupulous care about the look and feel of things. Judgement instead of consensus. Simplicity as the gold standard. Any questions?
Jobs’ greatest talent may have been his ability to see truths hidden in plain sight, to take what in retrospect seemed obvious and then bet the farm on it (like the choice of Apple Computer, which was influenced by his stretches at an apple farm commune).
I have more to read, but I am more familiar with the future history than I was with Steve’s early life. Still, I look forward to every tidbit and more from Isaacson.
Nocera, no stranger to the Cult of Steve, snipes that Isaacson hasn’t so much written a biography as he has transcribed “big, sprawling, amazing life.”
“It is a serious accomplishment,” Nocera conceded. “What remains for future biographers is to make sense of that life.”
Maybe. Or just maybe that is up to us, based on the extraordinary lode of primary material Isaacson conveys. Maybe Jobs’ final one more thing to do was to embrace the crowd he (and we) knew he was smarter than, and for which he could sometimes barely contain his contempt.
Which is why I think this bio was never meant to be on this Earth while Steve was. Because, this way, there’s still nobody he has to answer to.