When I first heard that Walter Isaacson would be writing a biography on Steve Jobs in 2008, I thought the task would be an impossible one. I wondered how Isaacson would compose an even-handed, comprehensive portrait of a figure famous for his “reality distortion field” (through which Jobs convinces himself and others that his reality is the only truth). Surely, Jobs would insist on full editorial control over the biography’s content, which could stifle any attempts to tarnish his status as arguably the greatest CEO who has ever lived.
Incredibly, Jobs did just the opposite of what people expected of him; he refused even to read the book before it was published, even though he was incredibly forthcoming in his more than 40 interviews with Isaacson. This decision, along with Isaacson’s unflagging determination to resist Jobs’ tendency to wholly “distort reality” and present an accurate, multi-faceted narrative, made the biography better than I ever could have imagined. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking, even touching retrospective on one of the most polarizing, popular figures of recent history.
Most people know the basic story. An arrogant punk named Steve drops out of college, starts a company (which he inexplicably decides to name after a fruit) out of his parent’s garage. That arrogant punk eventually gets kicked out of said company, and then—like a phoenix from the ashes—saves Apple, Inc. from the brink of bankruptcy, and eventually transforms it into one of the most profitable companies in the world.
Isaacson’s biography, of course, tells this story in painstaking detail; unsurprisingly, it serves as the backbone for the entire book, the central narrative around which all of the events of Jobs’ life revolve. The biography introduces many unexpected nuances within this now mythic tale—Jobs’ many product failures, his capacity for unbelievable cruelty, his notorious and frequent temper tantrums—but the story we all know and love is left largely intact and true to conventional knowledge. If this well-known, admittedly fascinating narrative was the only aspect of Jobs’ life covered in this book, I would advise you to ignore the book and merely Google Steve Jobs and the evolution of Apple’s products.
But it’s not. On the contrary, Isaacson’s biography also presents a treasure trove of revealing details about a man who, despite his immense public presence, was extremely guarded about his personal life, to the point where even members of Apple’s board did not know when Jobs first was diagnosed with cancer. Some of these unexpected facts, even if they are not widely circulated, were likely available on the Internet before the biography was published—like the fact that Jobs, at age 23, got his girlfriend pregnant and then, in a characteristic act of his own type of reality distortion, initially denied paternity and child support. Or the fact that Jobs was adopted, and his Syrian father owns a chain of restaurants in the United States. Or the fact that, even into his middle age, he would frequently adopt bizarre diets—such as eating just fruit for weeks on end—and fast for days, just to cleanse himself.
But other facts—the details of Jobs’ life that lend the book its essential vitality and authenticity—would never have been discovered without this biography. For Isaacson, the venerable biographer known for his critically acclaimed books on Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger, was not content with merely channeling his unprecedented access to Jobs onto the page. Rather, Isaacson tirelessly checked Jobs’ statements against those of his family, friends, co-workers, and enemies in order to extract essential truths about Jobs’ existence, to reveal the authentic human being beyond the veil of reality distortion.
In other words, we receive a convincing approximation of what it must have felt like to be in the same room as Jobs, both at his best—a groundbreaking creative thinker who could inspire his peers to accomplish the impossible—and at his worst—a brutal perfectionist who perceived everyone and everything as either “the best” or “complete shit.” In fact, Isaacson demonstrates that these two aspects of his personality were not dichotomous but rather mutually dependent. His genius, largely rooted in his ability to repackage pre-existing ideas—such as graphical computer interfaces, portable music players, and cloud computing—in order to completely establish new cultural paradigms and trends, depended on his ruthless pursuit for perfection and efficiency.
But even this description of Jobs’ character, while accurate, does not embody his full complexity. There is an intensely emotional, even romanticized, aspect of Jobs’ personality. In his corporate life, this romanticism manifested itself as an unceasing drive to create beautiful products. But in his personal life, his intense aesthetic vision made him simultaneously alienating and inspiring, cold and forthcoming.
In the end, Jobs wished desperately for people to comprehend why he fought so tirelessly to make the world a more beautiful place. Towards the end of the biography, Jobs explains why, despite his fears, he allowed Isaacson to continue the project:
“‘I wanted my kids to know me,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.’”
While I don’t know whether Jobs’ children will know more about their enigmatic father after reading this book, I can say with confidence that, after reading Isaacson’s incredible biography, I certainly did. Even if you disagree with the man and everything he stood for, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson is reading essential for understanding how, and why, Jobs forever transformed our relationship with technology and design.