Steve Jobs’ biographer felt lashing of his sharp tongue

Isaacson's Jobs biography in a store (Photo: Reuters)

Getting off a plane earlier this year, Walter Isaacson got hit with what he called “the thing you least want to see on your iPhone”– six or seven missed calls from his biography subject, Steve Jobs.

Speaking to a crowd at the Computer History Museum Tuesday night in Mountain View, Calif., Isaacson described finally connecting with Jobs, who apparently had just seen the book’s proposed cover and didn’t care for it. Jobs let loose a stream of invectives. “He just started yelling,” Isaacson recalled. “You have no taste. The cover is gimmicky. It’s ugly.”

Jobs, who hadn’t asked for editorial input into any other aspect of the book, said he would withdraw his cooperation unless he could have editorial input into the cover. Isaacson said he agreed in a matter of seconds, and then Jobs spent time choosing the two jacket photos— a recent shot on the front, and a younger Jobs on the back– and making sure the cover looked clean and simple.

Otherwise, the issue of editorial control “never came up,” said Isaacson. “I was stunned.” Jobs told him he wanted the biography to feel “independent” rather than like an “in-house project.”

At other moments, Isaacson said, Jobs reassured him that nobody would read it anyway– not because they didn’t care, but because people don’t read books anymore.

‘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 TimesJoe 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.