After the spate of obituaries and articles, is there anything left to learn about the man who turned personal computing into a pleasure – and then a necessity – for so many of us? In a word, yes. In Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson (pictured below) – the former editor of Time who has previously written biographies of Einstein and Franklin – has given us a nuanced portrait of the brilliant, mercurial, complicated genius who rethought and reimagined computers, movies, phones, music, and tablet computers.
It isn’t always a pretty picture. The sleek, polished Apple devices that are so much a part of our lives, that we dandle so comfortably in our hands, sprang almost entirely from Jobs’ imagination – “endowed with his DNA,” as Isaacson says – and at Apple, he assembled a team that could build them. The simplicity and perfection that Jobs sought, that he demanded, came at a price, and Isaacson reveals that price in a way no one ever has before. Working for Jobs was like riding a wild, manic roller-coaster: Some days he goaded and bullied his staff into delivering better work than they thought possible. Other days he might approve an idea or innovation in a half-hour meeting (the kind of thing that would drag out for months at other companies). Then he could turn again on a dime, ignoring key staffers when gifting coveted Apple stock. His family got the same loving/cruel treatment: Until he was sued, he did not pay child support for his first child, Lisa, his daughter with girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (behavior he regretted later in life). Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell admitted to Isaacson, “There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth.” He punished himself, too, going on bizarre fasts, subsisting on a single food, such as carrot salad or apples, for weeks on end – even after his cancer was diagnosed. His daughter Lisa perhaps put it best when he said, “He believed that great harvests came from arid sources, pleasure from restraint.” Even on his deathbed, Jobs’ ever-fevered creativity did not flag: “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” he told Isaacson. “It would be seamlessly synced with with all your devices.”
If occasionally workmanlike, Isaacson’s thoughtful, broadly-sourced bio is thorough, filling in all the holes in Jobs’ life, especially the years after he returned to Apple. My only quibble is a small one: Though the jacket is gorgeous (perhaps because Jobs himself had a hand in it), the book’s interior feels cheaply done, with thin paper and an unremarkable font. As I hefted it, I thought, If only it measured up to Jobs’ exacting design standards. But no matter, really. What’s important is that Isaacson has taken the complete measure of the man. This is a biography as big as Steve Jobs. A-