I purchased Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs the moment it came out. I’ve read a number of books on the history of Apple and Jobs—some dealing with him directly and others only touching upon his life and ideas—and I was eager to see what the man who was asked by Jobs himself to write the biography had to say.
I’d never read anything by Isaacson, the somewhat (I discovered) famous biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger. He’s also the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. I had to look up both Isaacson and the Aspen Institute, as I’d never heard of either prior to picking up this biography. Perhaps to my shame, but true nonetheless.
I’m still not sure what the Aspen Institute is, though it was founded in the early 1950s to support the Great Books-project and methods of Mortimer J. Adler. Now, frankly, it looks like the most pro-establishment type of institute imaginable, claiming the aid and allegiance of a number of prominent neo-conservatives and interventionist/imperialist liberals, the type of folks who have been circulating in and out of various presidential administrations and think tanks since that of Richard Nixon.
Though I’ve yet to complete the full biography of Jobs (as I’m about halfway done), I do feel I have a grasp of Isaacson. He has, I found out, earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford. He has also been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Despite these seemingly impressive credentials, he’s a mediocre writer at best. At least in this book. The biography repeats itself frequently, to the point of annoyance. The repetition clearly stems from Isaacson’s unstated but obvious belief that his readership is too stupid to remember the many characters and the details about those characters who weave in and out of Jobs’s life. How many times do we need to know that one of Jobs’s many girlfriends is a stunning beauty?
Still, not all is terrible with Isaacson’s writing either. While an excellent sentence appears only here or there, no clunkers stand out either. Isaacson’s writing is, essentially, tapioca pudding. Neither excellent nor pathetic. He can tell a story, but he does so as though writing a feature article for Time or Newsweek. It’s a step above People magazine, but only a step.
From what I can tell of the Aspen Institute, Isaacson’s writing style isn’t surprising. His Colorado/Washington think tank looks equally bland and unappealing. Power for power’s sake, with no understanding of culture beyond what is accepted by one’s immediate peer group, or of ingenious human diversity, or of the gothic glories of nature.
The world Isaacson presents is a deadeningly flat world, with only a genius here or there emerging to “make the future.” Tellingly, especially given Isaacson’s other biographies, he references philosophers and profound thinkers only rarely. The one who stands out, though, is Friedrich Nietzsche. Still, in this retelling, the syphilitic and mercurial German intellectual appears only to make Jobs seem like an ubermensch.
Isaacson also seems obsessed with one unfortunate word, a four-letter long barnyard epitaph that begins with an “s” and ends with a “t”. As Mark Twain wrote of the Book of Mormon, if an editor removed every “hep good” from the text, Joseph Smith’s work would be only a pamphlet. The same, I think, is true of this biography of Jobs. The word appears, in its various incarnations, 57 times according to Kindle.
Perhaps, though, this isn’t as much Isaacson’s fault as it is Steve Jobs’s. As brilliant as Jobs was, he did seem to possess a rather limited vocabulary, if one is to believe Isaacson. Jobs deemed everything—from computer chip designs to personalities to kitchen appliances—either “insanely great” or utter and total “s–t.”
Admittedly, in large part, I don’t want to believe Isaacson. As several of my close high school and college friends can attest (Ron Strayer, I’m looking at you!), the only persons who possibly meant more to me in the 1980s were Neil Peart and Ronald Reagan. But, for me, the three created a great triumvirate. Peart, the artist and philosopher; Reagan, the inspired statesman and anti-communist; and Jobs, the innovator and entrepreneur.
Amazingly enough, my family purchased a 128k Mac as soon as it was released. I grew up with the Mac, discovering the unlimited (at least so far) joys of writing. The moment I typed on that keyboard and played around with MacWrite, I knew I wanted to write books and articles and poetry (not so good on this one!) and any and everything imaginable.
That first Mac and all subsequent Macs—including the one on which I type this article—have always served as gateways into the eternal realms of thought, myth, and imagination. With the typed word—and through the products of the genius of Jobs—anything might be possible.
Isaacson’s Jobs is rather despicable morally. He manipulated everything and everyone, he rarely kept promises, he felt no loyalty to anyone but himself and perhaps his immediate family, and he blatantly lied to everyone around him. The last word—a lie—is a touchy one that Isaacson shies away from employing too often. Instead, Isaacson and those around Jobs during his lifetime preferred using the term “reality distortion field,” a concept taken from an original Star Trek episode in which aliens manipulate their own reality through their intellect.
Steve’s lies become real, as he changes the future to make them real.
A few, but only a few, saw right through Jobs’s manipulations. One was Joanna Hoffman, a longtime colleague. Another was an employee at Pixar, Alvy Ray Smith. “He was like a televangelist,” he claimed of Jobs, as he “wanted to control people, but I would not be a slave to him.” A third was Bill Gates, revolted by Jobs’s attempts to control him from the moment the two met. A fourth and final to be mentioned here, John Sculley’s wife, confronted him in a parking lot in the mid 1980s after everything soured between her husband and the co-founder of Apple. “When I look into most people’s eyes, I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone.”
I’m sure most of us have encountered the boss or “superior” who believes himself not only as a charismatic person, but as a genius. From the way Isaacson describes him, Jobs was your worst image x1000.
Despite all of this and the gut-wrenching rending of a childhood hero, I must state that there is still much to admire about Jobs, especially his imagination, his aesthetics, and his tenacity. More than anything else, as with my other two heroes from the 1980s, Jobs desired excellence and pursued it in all things.
Sadly, though, all of this came at the cost of an intense personal manipulation. Having completed half of the biography, I can conclude that Jobs was an Manichean Epicurean Nietzschean, driven by his Eastern adopted and adapted “Intuition” and spirituality.
Yet, for better or worse, I still love all things Apple, and I’ve more than happily typed this piece on my Macbook Air. RIP, Steve P. Jobs.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.