Book of the week: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson thoroughly covers Jobs's story, from boyhood to adulthood and from multiple business triumphs to professional rivalries.

(Simon & Schuster, $35.00)

“The Steve Jobs backlash has begun,” said Dan Lyons in Mere weeks after the death of the Apple founder, and the tidal wave of Facebook and Twitter paeans that followed, Walter Isaacson’s “balanced but often unflattering portrait” of the tech entrepreneur has arrived bearing insights that will “surprise and disappoint” avid followers of the late CEO. Was Jobs a genius? Isaacson puts him alongside Henry Ford and Ben Franklin in the hierarchy of American inventors. But the larger picture that emerges is of a brilliant but hot-tempered and ungenerous man who consistently put work above family and “who, even as he was dying, could not let go of his desire to outdo his enemies.” Speaking to Isaacson, Jobs even vowed to spend “his last dying breath”—and every penny of Apple’s wealth—pursuing a lawsuit against Google for allegedly stealing the iPhone’s operating system.

It feels strange to encounter this book so soon after Jobs’s death, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Isaacson clearly hoped to produce the “biography of record” on Jobs, so the book’s 627 pages cover every corner of the story, from its subject’s boyhood up to yesterday, and from multiple business triumphs to professional rivalries. “But facts alone—even previously unknown facts—do not, by themselves, make for great biographies,” said Joe Nocera, also in the Times. Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than 40 times, but what he needed most was distance. This near-instant book “is a serious accomplishment,” but where a reader expects “genuine insight,” it falls flat.

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Isaacson is actually pretty good at connecting Jobs’s flaws to his achievements, said Michael S. Rosenwald in The Washington Post. Here was a man capable of seeing people “in only one of two ways—as enlightened or as bozos,” and if you were in the wrong camp, he’d attack mercilessly. He considered Microsoft’s Bill Gates dull and unimaginative. He even played know-it-all with Barack Obama, allegedly warning the president in private that a 2012 defeat was inevitable if he didn’t adopt more business-friendly policies. But it was this same condescending perfectionist in Jobs that pushed Apple to produce its great run of culture-changing consumer products. Writes Isaacson, “Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories” with the same thought: that Apple’s guru “got them to do things they never dreamed possible.”

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