Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

As far as biographies go, Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs is truly masterful. Isaacson has taken a complex and busy life of a contemporary man and not only made it comprehensible, but also organized the narrative carefully, giving due attention to the most important times in Jobs' life. The fact that most stories have two sides in this book, and those sides get a voice through Isaacson's careful interviews is possibly the best part of it all.

It is difficult to do a review of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs without succumbing to the temptation to review the man, Steve Jobs, himself. When I first read this book, I kept thinking, "what a horrible person!" and asking myself why I would want to read a book about such a deeply flawed individual. Eventually, you stop reading Jobs' story as one which is up for evaluation. After all, it is impossible to read the book without the knowledge that this man, too, is mortal and has feet of clay like the rest of us. If someone were to write a book about my life, there would be more than a few childish tantrums.

In the end, Jobs' life story - like all stories - is about a quest for salvation. Since Jobs was into Eastern philosophy, his quest was twofold: 1) A quest for inner peace and 2) A quest for immortality. I do not consider Jobs' life to be any sort of cautionary tale. His is a life that many aspire to. I believe this is because of the desire for us as fallen men to know that we will live on after we die in the memories and hearts of others. As Jobs put it, he wanted to "make a dent in the universe." This is a fundamental human desire, and I believes it reflects the creative image of God, which we are made in, and our fallen desire to rule in God's place. Again, I don't want to pontificate and use Jobs' life as an opportunity to sermonize.

My point is that Jobs was just like the rest of us. We all want to be remembered. We all want to live on. We all want to be important to others. We all tend to live in terror of a universe where we do not matter. This fear in Jobs is most apparent as Isaacson discusses Jobs' return to Apple from cancer treatments around 2008. He was upset that Tim Cook had announced that Apple would go on with or without Jobs at the helm.

Jobs' zen-mentality meant that in his personal life he eschewed cluttered living and elaborate possessions. He lived in an unfurnished mansion for years, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. When he did get married and discovered that women don't want to live in unfurnished houses, he relented and picked a very understated home in the suburbs to live in. At one point, his children referred to one of the Apple employees who owned a boat as their "rich friends" even though Jobs was doubtlessly worth billions more than this employee.

While a desire for simplicity and escape from material posessions was an important drive in Jobs' aesthetics and lifestyle, his own sister pointed out to him the glaring contradiction of believing the world is a better place if people have less "stuff" while at the same time creating things which people covet and desire and gather around themselves. Jobs' response was that the things he creates make the world a better place. It would be a mistake if we see this contradiction in Jobs, however, and don't see it - to a greater or lesser degree - in ourselves.

Having been born in the early 80s, I grew up with the first Macintosh in my house. At a very young age I was playing with Mouse Paint and loving it. I grew up during the home computing revolution and got to see firsthand the excitement in the air as the promise of a connected world came to fruition. Reading this book took me back to those days when the tech industry seemed to me an exciting, emerging, and far away place. At one point when I was a kid I bought a book on C++ and tried to teach myself programming. I did create a DOS-based calculator program, but I gave up on programming because I was terrible at Algebra. However, I never stopped admiring the workmanship and skill that went into creating technology.

This book convinced me that the world is a better place because Steve Jobs was in it and made the things that he made. I came to appreciate the simplicity of the Apple aesthetic.

[In a nutshell, I believe that the strength of Apple is in the fact that, other than hackers and hardware nuts, people buy computers to do things, to accomplish things. The PC is in the disadvantage because it is higher maintenance (take it from someone who owns a PC and a Macbook). Rather than doing, the PC experience is about making the hardware and software work. With Apple, it is all about using the technology instead of focusing on the technology. The more simplistic the experience, the more people can get to the work at hand. This is why a writer (such as myself) who is not a hacker or tech geek (anymore) wants to just grab his Macbook and start writing. The computer becomes a conduit for interactivity rather than a tinkering project or an object of fixation.]

In the end, Steve Jobs' life story is worth reading, though I offer a few caviats. First, this book is for those who are Apple fans. Apple people will love this book. Second, this book is for businessmen and entrepeneurs who are fascinated by others' success (and failure) stories. Third, this book is for those who are interested in the home computing revolution and who are interested in getting a behind the scenes look at how the industry came to look the way it did (though from a decidedly Apple-centric angle). Fourth, there is a lot of offensive language in this book. This is a book for thick-skinned readers. If you can't handle it, don't pick it up. Even John Lassetter has a choice F-bomb in the book. Finally, this is most certainly a book for people who enjoy great biographies.

Walter Isaacson has skillfully taken this multifaceted life and woven it into a comprehensible (though often non-linear) narrative. I found myself in constant appreciation of Isaacson's decision-making in terms of when to move forward in the narrative and when to jog back in the timeline to an earlier subject when had not yet been adequately dealt with. My guess is that this was not an easy book to write.

1 comment:

  1. I should add that the book was an easy, fun and accessible read. Actually hard to put down, which is pretty good for biography. I come away from it looking differently at both my Apple products and the world around me. No need to be a technology person to enjoy this book.
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