Walter Isaacson isn’t surprised by Jobs’s hospital-bed demeanor, and by the time the anecdote comes up more than 400 pages into this massive biography, readers won’t be either. Earlier in the book, Jobs had established himself as a design maniac, declaring that memory chips that no one would ever see inside the Macintosh computer were “ugly. The lines are too close together.”
Isaacson’s biography can be read in several ways. It is on the one hand a history of the most exciting time in the age of computers, when the machines first became personal and later, fashionable accessories. It is also a textbook study of the rise and fall and rise of Apple and the brutal clashes that destroyed friendships and careers. And it is a gadget lover’s dream, with fabulous, inside accounts of how the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad came into being.
But more than anything, Isaacson has crafted a biography of a complicated, peculiar personality — Jobs was charming, loathsome, lovable, obsessive, maddening — and the author shows how Jobs’s character was instrumental in shaping some of the greatest technological innovations of our time. As Isaacson rightly puts it, the Jobs-inspired products are bold and simple, in essence “poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology.”
Though Jobs delighted in his well-known and much-rehearsed onstage persona, he was extremely private. Yet he allowed Isaacson unfettered access to his life, his colleagues and his family because he wanted his children to know what he had accomplished while he was away so much. Jobs, who died this month, exerted no control over the story Isaacson wrote and in fact told his biographer near his death that he would probably dislike the book. He didn’t seem to entirely fear the portrait that would be revealed, and neither did his wife, Laurene Powell.
“There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth,” Powell told Isaacson. “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.”
Isaacson clearly admires Jobs and heaps justifiable praise on his accomplishments — putting him in a league with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But he still holds his subject to task for his often boorish behavior, pointing out that some of Jobs’s actions defied “all connection to reality.”
Shades of gray didn’t come easily to Jobs. “He craved perfection, and he was not always good at figuring out how to settle for something less,” Isaacson writes. “He did not like to wrestle with complexity or make accommodations. This was true in products, design, and furnishings for the house. It was also true when it came to personal commitments.”