Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: 'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson

"to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons." -- Galatians 4:5 (NKJV)

It's rare for a major biography based on lots of access to be published within weeks of a person's death. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is such an exception, and I found it to be good at capturing a lot of details about Jobs's life to create a continuing narrative built around dramatic incidents in his life. If you had wondered about the psyche that could produce such amazing new product introductions and be so mean to people while working on the product, this book provides lots of surface evidence of someone who built his own reality, who wasn't comfortable with who he was, who wanted to impress, and who could be coldly manipulative. The roots of these characteristics are ascribed to having been given up for adoption by his biological parents. It's a pretty shallow explanation for someone who probably had some more serious personality disorders.

Many of the reasons to want to read about Steve Jobs relate to interests in entrepreneurship, innovation, and product development in technology businesses. Although the book provides lots of information, it's more than a little light on insight concerning these subjects. A more specialized biography . . . or management book . . . will be required.

The book will probably appeal most to those who love Apple products and Pixar movies, but don't know very much about Jobs's life . . . and are curious to know more. I think the book will satisfy most of such interests.

A concern I have about the book is that Jobs was hardly a role model in many aspects of his life. While Mr. Isaacson doesn't pull any punches in some areas, such as Jobs's relationships with his children, the book isn't exactly objective when it comes to evaluating how he treated people at work. Inexcusable behavior is sort of justified by the results . . . in retrospect. I couldn't help but wonder about people who Jobs abused and were harmed by the experience. People who treated others nicely are mostly portrayed as being deficient in smarts or interest in serving customers well.

Intellect doesn't excuse inhumanity. The book doesn't quite deal with that issue.

A lot of what Jobs did is also justified by the acme of success that Apple has achieved at the moment. From another point in time, many of the narratives here could have been written with a lot more objectivity. For instance, all the sturm und drang about the Macintosh in the book makes the launch seem more commercially important than it was. Mr. Isaacson mentions almost in passing that the Apple II was producing almost all of the revenues and profits for years to come.

As a result, a lot of the long-term significance of this book is in providing interviews that future biographers may not be able to duplicate for themselves. As such, this book's lasting benefit may be to provide raw material for future biographers who will be able to apply more objectivity and expertise to describing such an unusual, gifted, and flawed individual whose career has affected a great many lives through the innovations he championed.

Thank you for writing the book, Mr. Isaacson. You did as well as anyone could have at this point in time.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.