The Biography

So last night I finished Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

My friend Jonathan JK Morris had written a post about it on his blog a few weeks ago but I hadn’t read it for fear of hitting spoilers. I also wanted to make up my own mind. Turns out we’re on the same page. This review started out as a comment to his own but I quickly got carried away… Me and my big mouth ;)
You can check out his take here.
As for mine: here we go.

It’s not a bad book.

But it should’ve been a GREAT book and it most definitely is not — which is unfortunate given the subject and context. Steve Jobs deserved much better in my opinion.

I’m a geek. I never read any of the unofficial biographies but have followed Apple and Jobs for many, many years. I was sitting at my computer, watching a fairly bad looking QuickTime feed of Macworld when he returned as the prodigal son. I remember the emotion. And that’s the book’s biggest fault in my opinion: lack of emotion.

Isaacson’s writing never rises above average. There’s no real insight, no depth.
Like Jonathan, I found the overall construction of the book jarring: it follows a chronological order but the timeline sometimes jumps back and forth with no real logic, as though he suddenly remembered something and simply inserted it into the chapter he was currently writing. Odd.

The style also left me wanting. I understand the need for the narrator in a biography to show some distance. It helps to appear objective. Unfortunately though, it often just seemed to skim the surface.

But what truly bothered me were the incessant repetitions. Good God. Isaacson keeps repeating the same images and descriptions over and over, sometimes word for word – or at least that’s what it feels like. I mean, we get it: Jobs liked to talk things out on long walks. He had a complex relationship with food. He had taught himself to look someone in the eye without blinking. You don’t need to remind us Every.Single.Time in Every.Single.Situation. These repetitions often gave me the impression that the book had been written in chunks rather than as a whole, as though each chapter had been meant to be published on its own. It just breaks the flow.

And the books feels mean.

I know this is highly subjective but I can’t really shake it. Before reading it I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Isaacson where Steve Croft described it as “a hard book”, looking somewhat dismayed. Well, it is. At times it seems almost complacent in repeatedly pointing out Job’s character faults.

I don’t have a problem with the author exposing the dark side of his personality, something that appears to have been an integral part of his makeup. I know it’s part of mine. But let’s just say that it was a nice break to read Mona Simpson’s eulogy in the NY Times. It spoke of love and beauty. And it made me wonder about the accuracy of Isaacson’s portrayal. Maybe he just didn’t get it. Then again, perhaps Steve didn’t let him get it. We’ll never know.

In the end I’d say the book is a record of the events that shaped the amazing life of Steve Jobs. It could’ve been much more but, to my chagrin, it isn’t. It never really pierces the veneer.

According to Isaacson, Steve asked him to write this book because he wanted his children to know him, to understand what he had done and why. It’s a beautiful thought, one that perhaps - more than anything - gives us some insight into his frailties: he knew he’d been distant and hard. Perhaps he meant this as a goodbye note. Making amends.

The book will certainly give them a frame of reference. The moments where the author simply lets Steve speak are priceless. There should’ve been more of those. But I hope they’ll sit down with their mother, their aunt, with people who truly loved and understood their father.

I think they deserve much more than what’s offered here.