by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
Published: October 2011
Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” was published in the fall of 2011, three weeks after Jobs died at the age of 56. Isaacson is an author, journalist and former CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger (a book for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination). His most recent biography “Leonardo da Vinci” was published in 2017.
“Steve Jobs” is an authorized biography of its idiosyncratic and complex subject. Isaacson received significant assistance from Jobs during his final years of life (primarily in the form of interviews and access to family photographs) but also from more than 100 of his family, friends, colleagues and competitors. But, so far as I can tell, Jobs never reviewed the book in draft form and did not live to see it published.
Far from being a hagiographic tribute to Jobs, though, Isaacson’s biography strips bare the multifaceted founder of Apple Computer. And Jobs quickly proves a perfect biographical subject: he is at once brilliant, narcissistic, intuitive, controlling, idiosyncratic and, occasionally, astonishingly cruel. The author fully dissects his persona – genius and flaws – with considerable skill.
Isaacson’s literary style lacks the erudite sophistication exhibited by some biographies, but his narrative – which often feels oddly informal – is accessible by anyone. And rather than creating an intricate or complicated story, Isaacson glues together hundreds of snippets, anecdotes, quotes and short stories from Jobs’s life to form a fluid, engrossing narrative devoid of unnecessary details or tangents.
The 571 pages of text are almost continually entertaining, engaging and utterly revealing. There are countless enjoyable chapters and passages including many which explore his personal life. But the heart of the book follows Jobs through his eventful two-part career at Apple. Hardcore technology enthusiasts may find Isaacson’s understanding (or explanation) of technology issues too simplistic, but for most readers the level sophistication is appropriate.
Unfortunately, while Isaacson does an admirable job uncovering Job’s maddening contradictions, he is less tenacious about fully unraveling them. As a result, readers never quite know what to think of an allegedly anti-materialistic “hippie” who shunned furniture and frequently greeted clients while barefoot…but drove a Porsche and owned a yacht.
In addition, Isaacson’s writing can be uneven – it occasionally proves deeply insightful and analytical but, more often, seems a bit breezy and carefree. At its core, however, this biography is a fascinating and well-organized collection of titillating tales which reveals his eccentricities but can never quite diagnose what makes Jobs tick. It is possible, of course, that the forces which drove Jobs are simply impenetrable.
Overall, Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” proves an interesting and well-balanced review of the life of one of the greatest (and most inscrutable) entrepreneurs of this generation. While Isaacson’s biography cannot fully explain Jobs’s curious contradictions it is extremely successful in highlighting his faults, flaws and quirks as well as his extraordinary genius through a free-flowing and engaging narrative.
Overall rating: 4 stars
This was one of the easiest to follow biographies I have ever read, similar to reading a magazine profile (an extremely lengthy one). It was also, quite simply, an enjoyable book.
As you said, Isaacson did a very good job covering the complex and hypocritical character that was Steve Jobs. His writing brought the man alive in my head which is a key component in any biography (the ability to pull up the video clips mentioned also helps with this). The main drawback is that Isaacson was unable to adequately insert his own analysis of Jobs and Jobs’ evolution throughout the text. I think this would have been particularly relevant in the chapters featuring his time at NeXT where he overcame significant failures and flipped them into a triumphant return to Apple.
Overall, this is a fantastic book for anyone, especially those interested in the computer industry, Apple or Steve Jobs himself and I would highly recommend it. However, those who do heavier hitting material should know that this is a work geared towards the mass-market, which is probably the way Jobs would want it to be.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. And my experience with Isaacson’s bio of Jobs leaves me really looking forward to his biography of Einstein which is currently on my schedule for the Sept/Oct timeframe. And at some point thereafter I’ll be reading his biography of Ben Franklin…