I finished the last few pages of this biography in the following environment: My Apple TV played Cars streamed from my Mac that I controlled with my iPhone. All that was missing was an afternoon trip to an Apple Store somewhere. This illustrates not my dependence on technology (a topic that was addressed several other times in my reviews), but on the influence Steve Jobs has in my life. In many ways, Apple’s history is my history. Since I’m only a little older than Apple, I can connect aspects of my life with its.
I bought my first Mac in 1998 and lived in an Apple-exclusive home every since. The history of Apple and the computer industry has been a favorite topic of study over the years, and I’ve read and watched many books and movies. I have been an Apple enthusiast/evangelist for over a decade. I, like many, fell into Steve’s charismatic spell. Because of this, reading the new biography about Steve Jobs was not an option; it was an edict from within. The author, Walter Isaacson, chronicled the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and now, Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs was a many of contradictions.
He was a billionaire, and he was a Zen Buddhist.
He created beautiful products, but he lived as a minimalist.
He was a charismatic man, but he was a complete jerk everyone around him.
He talked about passion in life, but he largely ignored his family.
He believed in design and beauty, but he ignored a Creator or Architect.
He believed in eschewing the trappings of the world, but he created the prettiest ones.
Isaacson gives a multi-faceted picture of the man who popularized geek, both the good and the ugly. And there is lots of ugly. The book is fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable, even if you were not interested in computer history. Steve Jobs is as tormented of a man as any character is a Dostoevsky novel. He wants to build great things, but he gets in his own way. He died with few close friends, but changed the technology world for the good. On one side he inspired engineers and designers under his leadership to create products that couldn’t be done, but he did this with berating, insulting, and, at times, crying. Most leaders use encouraging phrases like “Good job!” and “Impressive!” to help build up employees. Steve Jobs’s favorite line when he is shown a new design or feature is, “This is shit!” To Steve, this isn’t an insult; rather, it is a motivational tool.
What makes this book rich and deep is not just the computer history narrative, but it is also the subplots that run through the story: adoption, Steve’s estranged daughter that he denied for years, his romantic life, Bob Dylan, and Steve’s cancer. These secondary stories make Jobs more human and relatable to use non-billionaire geniuses.
While I learned much more about Apple, the one aspect that I was more surprised to discover is how much Steve Jobs really did at Apple, even in the final days. He micromanaged design, usability, packaging, commercials, color of walls, construction of new buildings and campuses, tile in Apple stores, the “floating” staircase in the stores, and even the dinner menu at events. Before I read the book, I thought that Apple would continue just fine without him. Now, after reading how he made all the decisions, I’m not so sure.
There’s so much more I want to say in praise of this book and for Steve Jobs and Apple, but I’ll save those for conversations with my geeky friends. I wish I could have it with Steve himself. Steve Jobs was one man I wanted to have dinner with someday. (Sidenote: I did have coffee with Apple’s other co-founder, Steve Wozniak. It was a great conversation with a slightly odd fellow. Read about it here). I’d love to talk about how his quest for design, order, and beauty springs from something within us, something built by an ultimate Designer. There was an interesting spiritual comment from Jobs as Yo-Yo Ma was playing his cello for an event. “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” After this, Jobs made Yo-Yo Ma commit to playing the cello at his funeral. Fittingly, I am listening to Ma’s Bach Cello Suites as I type this.
I know what Steve Jobs would say about this review for his biography if he were to read it:
“This is shit.”