Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs by Walter IsaacsonI start this review by confessing I’m exhausted after reading Walter Isaacson’s behemoth authorized biography, Steve Jobs—not because of the mass of this book, but because of the continual upheaval described throughout. I never imagined when I picked it up to read I’d be left reeling, grateful when it finally ended.

Don’t get me wrong, Isaacson’s well-written book deserves kudos, especially the magnitude of his research and interviews, but I had a hard time reading anecdote after anecdote about what an ass Steve Jobs was. It was thoroughly depressing—especially since his genius and passion pump a large dose of admiration through my veins.

This 656-page book, which chronicles Jobs’ life and personality, and his passion for perfection, is based on more than forty interviews with Jobs, conducted over two years – as well as interviews with a large cast of characters—including family members, friends, adversaries, competitors and colleagues.

Isaacson, who has also written biographies about Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, clearly knows how to delve into the complexities of the genius mind. Unfortunately, the picture he paints of Steve Jobs, the man who helped revolutionize personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing, is not pretty.

Jobs was eccentric by any measure of the word—just flash back to his barefoot, hippy commune days or read about his extreme vegan diet or living in a house without furniture—but according to the loudest voices in this book, he was also controlling, manipulative, and down-right mean. One referred to him as an “assaholic.” Another a narcissicist. Another a bully. Many claimed he lived in a “reality distortion field.” Some wondered if he was mildly bi-polar with his extreme highs and lows and his black-and-white view of the world (Jobs thought ideas were either brilliant or “shit,” but never in between).

Whatever the case, there’s no denying the impact he made on our lives with his ability to inspire those around him, see the big picture, and pour himself into the smallest details of each product Apple created. He may not have been warm and cuddly, and he may have had an ego larger than North America, but somehow he was able to bring out the best in people. And with those exceptional people on his team, Apple and Pixar managed to develop some of the most innovative products ever created, merging art and technology.

The most interesting part of this book for me was the history; discovering the origins of many of the Apple products I’ve used over the years, and seeing how the symbiotic relationship between Jobs and Steve Wozniak evolved into the creation of the first personal computer. Being a design-lover, I was also fascinated by Apple’s design guru, Jonathon “Jony” Ive. It’s impossible not to appreciate the depth of thought he and Jobs invested in every detail of every Apple product created—from the handles and buttons to the colors and curves. The two were perfectly paired in their pursuit of exquisite design because neither settled, and both genuinely respected one another.

Then there’s the creation of iTunes and the iPod. Jobs’ passion for music and his vision of making music easily accessible (through Apple’s proprietary and extremely profitable portal and gadgets) not only resuscitated the stagnant music industry—it restructured it, and in the process also helped re-introduce greats like Bob Dylan to a whole new generation of fans.

If I had one criticism of the book, it’s that it felt lopsided toward the dramatic “dark side” of Steve Jobs. While it makes for riveting reading—almost like a Silicon Valley soap opera, with explosive boardroom drama, quirky personalities, illegitimate children, and scorned business partners—there is another side of Steve Jobs hardly mentioned in this book. That’s the side my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, knew: one that was gracious and generous, intense, yet funny and charismatic. I wonder how many other friends of Steve Jobs weren’t interviewed for this book who had similar experiences?

Also as I read page after page, I couldn’t help feeling sorrow for the Jobs children—in a protective, motherly sort of way. Even though Jobs asked Isaacson to write this book so his kids would know him better, and even though Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell, told Isaacson, “There are parts of (Steve’s) life and personality that are extremely messy…You shouldn’t whitewash it. He’s good at spin, but he also has a remarkable story, and I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully,” –it’s hard to imagine this would be easy for the kids. They seem worldly and wise, but my hope is they hold off reading it until they are well into adulthood, when their grief has faded, and their canvas of memories has been colored by the paintbrush of life. Perhaps then, this raw and detailed book might feel like the gift their father meant it to be.

For the rest of us, Isaacson’s book is a gift worth reading now. Even if it could have been edited tighter and had a little more balance, it captures an important moment in our history  and reveals the passion, genius, and commitment of the man who changed our modern world (flaws and all).

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

How about you? What do you think of the book? And what do you think about Steve Jobs?

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

  1. Becky currently I am reading this book. And to be honest, While reading this book, I was thinking like, “Is he the Same Steve Jobs, about whom I read in one of your posts? ” It was like two completely different sides of the same person. As a computer engineer myself, I know he is idol of so many young people, who are part of this computer world. Although mine is Denis Ritchie ; still I have lots of respect for him. And I am just finding it interesting to see his life getting unfolded page by page of this book.
    For first seeing so many pages, I was afraid of holding this book. Because I was sure that, the probability that I would finish reading this book is on lower side.”
    It’s great review Becky.

    • Arindam, with your background in computer engineering, I’m glad you are reading this book. Steve Jobs made a major impact on the world with his vision. Like you, I had a hard time reconciling the difference between the Steve Jobs my husband knew and the Steve Jobs Walter Isaacson described in his book. I wondered how Jeffrey could have possibly had such different experiences, but then I remembered somebody in Isaacson’s book saying that Jobs was charming and charismatic to those people he respected and saw as equals. I do hope you finish the book. The second half is more uplifting than the first half. It’s worth getting to the end. As always, thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear your opinion.

  2. My wife just finished reading the book last week and I listened to the audio version finishing up a couple months ago. We both found it fascinating for many reasons and neither of us felt exhausted after reading. My wife liked it so much she started rereading it right after finishing. And, I listened to many parts over again to make sure I understood the particular scenario well, for example, the details about Pixar, the creation of the first MAC, and the incredible complexity during the time Jobs was running both Pixar and Apple.

    Like all human beings, Jobs had his good side and his dark side. I even grew to understand that what some people saw as dark, unfriendly and mean was really that side of him that wanted to get to his vision faster. I don’t believe Jobs really meant to be that way and that most of the time the interactions that appeared callous and and deliberately vicious were the result of people’s misperception of Jobs intent.

    I just saw much of the conclusions people drew about him as over-blown reactions to someone who did lack what many consider social graces. The author was incredible at detailing personality characteristics so clearly I found myself identifying with certain ones and by the end of the book felt a kinship with Jobs that was unexpected for me.

    Hopefully, readers of this review will not put off reading the book because of the negative comments you made in the review. Since you rated it a 4.5 out of 5 you obviously found it an excellent book and people should understand that you are recommending the book.

    I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone that has even a passing interest in the high-tech industry, those who find genius on display fascinating and to those who want to see the indomitable human spirit of a visionary whose perfectionism and drive helped create two of the most influential companies of our times.

    • First, may I start by telling you how much I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comment. I appreciate you taking the time to share your impressions of Walter Isaacson’s book. I’m glad you and your wife enjoyed it so much; I know thousands of others have as well. Isaacson did a good job writing about an extremely complex and creative human being. I only wish he had included a few more anecdotes about the other side of Steve Jobs which rarely gets mentioned. I will re-read it at some point, and perhaps with time my reaction will be less raw. In the meantime, yes, I would recommend this book–especially so others could fully appreciate the magic of what Steve Jobs helped create.

  3. I still haven’t read this book, even though I’ve been meaning to for some time, now. Thank goodness for your wonderful ebook–I got just enough of a sense of Steve Jobs to satisfy me, so I can put off reading this lengthy biography for at least a little while longer!

    • Jessica, it’s worth the read if you can squeeze out the time in your full, busy life. Thanks for reading our little book about SJ. I’m glad you at least got to experience this side of him. He was a complicated and creative innovator.

  4. I have this book sitting by my bedside, yet to read. It’s intimidating to open it, but I will. I’m interested in Steve Jobs. I think geniuses/visionaries are in their own little world with their eccentricities, etc, and Jobs is no different. I don’t know anything about Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell or Einstein, but I’m sure they had their quirks, something that made them “challenging” to their friends and family.
    So, how long did it take you to get through it?

    • I think it’s less intimidating (and heavy) if you have it on a Kindle. :-) It’s hard to quantify how long it took me to read because the way my busy life is, I had to squeeze it in between or while doing other things–like standing making coffee in the morning or waiting for my daughter at ballet. It’s worth the read though, especially if you’re fascinated by geniuses. If you ever do crack it, I’d love to know what you think.

  5. Becky, really enjoyed this review. I’ve been thinking about picking up this biography, but my to-be-read list is full for the moment. I’ll read it one day, but I know, like you, I’ll be put off by the relentless emphasis on Jobs’ dark side.

    I’m glad your husband documented another side, and since it’s a shorter read, I just bought it :) . I’d like to see an inspired cultural anthropologist tackle Jobs and his impact on our world one day.

  6. Somehow I’m not surprised to see you reviewing this book . . . . Nor does your take on the book surprise me, based on what I’ve read about it. I’m impressed that you gave it such a high rating despite your reservations. I recently saw ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’, and even Mike Daisey’s fall from grace doesn’t negate what he captured about our love affair with technology, largely because of what Jobs created. It Maybe one day I’ll get around to reading the book.

    • Deborah, I hadn’t planned on reviewing this book, but felt compelled after reading it. I have mixed emotions, as you can see from my review, but thought Isaacson did a good job pulling together such a massive project. That’s why I gave it 4 1/2 stars. Jobs was a complicated and flawed human being, but I was disappointed by how much of the book focused on his negative side.

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