September 17, 2019

Books of The Times: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

“He loved doing things right,” Mr. Jobs said. “He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.”

Mr. Jobs, the brilliant and protean creator whose inventions so utterly transformed the allure of technology, turned those childhood lessons into an all-purpose theory of intelligent design. He gave Mr. Isaacson a chance to play by the same rules. His story calls for a book that is clear, elegant and concise enough to qualify as an iBio. Mr. Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” does its solid best to hit that target.

As a biographer of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Isaacson knows how to explicate and celebrate genius: revered, long-dead genius. But he wrote “Steve Jobs” as its subject was mortally ill, and that is a more painful and delicate challenge. (He had access to members of the Jobs family at a difficult time.) Mr. Jobs promised not to look over Mr. Isaacson’s shoulder, and not to meddle with anything but the book’s cover. (Boy, does it look great.) And he expressed approval that the book would not be entirely flattering. But his legacy was at stake. And there were awkward questions to be asked. At the end of the volume, Mr. Jobs answers the question “What drove me?” by discussing himself in the past tense.

Mr. Isaacson treats “Steve Jobs” as the biography of record, which means that it is a strange book to read so soon after its subject’s death. Some of it is an essential Silicon Valley chronicle, compiling stories well known to tech aficionados but interesting to a broad audience. Some of it is already quaint. Mr. Jobs’s first job was at Atari, and it involved the game Pong. (“If you’re under 30, ask your parents,” Mr. Isaacson writes.) Some, like an account of the release of the iPad 2, is so recent that it is hard to appreciate yet, even if Mr. Isaacson says the device comes to life “like the face of a tickled baby.” 

And some is definitely intended for future generations. “Indeed,” Mr. Isaacson writes, “its success came not just from the beauty of the hardware but from the applications, known as apps, that allowed you to indulge in all sorts of delightful activities.” One that he mentions, which will be as quaint as Pong some day, features the use of a slingshot to shoot down angry birds.

So “Steve Jobs,” an account of its subject’s 56 years (he died on Oct. 5), must reach across time in more ways than one. And it does, in a well-ordered, if not streamlined, fashion. It begins with a portrait of the young Mr. Jobs, rebellious toward the parents who raised him and scornful of the ones who gave him up for adoption. (“They were my sperm and egg bank,” he says.)

Although Mr. Isaacson is not analytical about his subject’s volatile personality (the word “obnoxious” figures in the book frequently), he raises the question of whether feelings of abandonment in childhood made him fanatically controlling and manipulative as an adult. Fortunately, that glib question stays unanswered.

Mr. Jobs, who founded Apple with Stephen Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in 1976, began his career as a seemingly contradictory blend of hippie truth seeker and tech-savvy hothead.

“His Zen awareness was not accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind or interpersonal mellowness,” Mr. Isaacson says. “He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed,” he also writes. But Mr. Jobs valued simplicity, utility and beauty in ways that would shape his creative imagination. And the book maintains that those goals would not have been achievable in the great parade of Apple creations without that mean streak.

Mr. Isaacson takes his readers back to the time when laptops, desktops and windows were metaphors, not everyday realities. His book ticks off how each of the Apple innovations that we now take for granted first occurred to Mr. Jobs or his creative team. “Steve Jobs” means to be the authoritative book about those achievements, and it also follows Mr. Jobs into the wilderness (and to NeXT and Pixar) after his first stint at Apple, which ended in 1985.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e051fa6b2ef6f0cd561324f1b4091df3