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The Book of Jobs

by Prasad Krishna last modified Nov 14, 2011 03:27 AM
The man who made the computer personal, who changed the face of the digital media industry, who was inspired by Zen philosophy to create an eight-billion-dollar empire, Steve Jobs, died last month. Just a few weeks before his death, in the midst of his painful illness, he told Walter Isaacson, the man chosen to write his authorised biography, “I really want to believe that something survives”. And Isaacson wrote him a fairy tale which will make sure that Jobs will be remembered beyond the gizmos and gimmicks.
The Book of Jobs

Steve Jobs

The biography is an anecdote-filled tale, well told, even though familiar for having been told quite often. It gives you a glimpse of Jobs, who began his life as an adopted child who had discovered early in life that “he was smarter” than his parents. For those who think of Jobs as an icon of our times, the book is filled with delicious tidbits of a life that has been kept fiercely private: his relationships (the story of a 23-year-old woman who he got pregnant and abandoned), his friendships (including how he parted ways with his first business partner Steve Woznaik), his inspirations (how did the name Apple come about, and what exactly is a MacIntosh?), his confrontations (especially the rivalry with Bill Gates), and his roller-coaster ride with Apple (founder-president-poster-boy, who was sent into exile and welcomed back as reigning monarch). Some of the stories are a part of popular lore, some of them will surprise you, some will enthrall you, and yet others, harsh and unflinching, will give you a dekko into what being Steve Jobs meant. Especially to Steve Jobs.

“Abandoned. Chosen. Special”. For Isaacson, these three concepts shape and define the life of Steve Jobs, and it might be a good idea to break this review under these three heads, only in the reverse order.

Special: Isaacson, in his introduction, talks about how, following his biographies on Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, he did not immediately see Jobs too as a figure at the intersection of technology and creativity, someone who changed the world. As he admits, it was only when Jobs revealed his fatal illness that Isaacson decided to join the throngs of people who have admired and accepted Jobs as “special”. But while many believe that Jobs changed the world by making the world of the digital seductive, accessible and friendly, Isaacson himself remains unconvinced. It is this lack of conviction that perhaps produces a jarring note in what would otherwise have been a fitting eulogy to a man who remained a bundle of paradoxes, who saw the world in neat binaries of “gods and shitheads”.

Isaacson does a fantastic job of charting the histories that produced Jobs – the confluence of technology, creativity, hippie lifestyles, fruitarian diets and Zen philosophy that marked his formative decades. He captures the different temporalities, geographies, people and places marked with Jobs’ presence. And yet, when it comes to Jobs himself, there is a wariness, a reluctance to be sucked into his famous “reality distortion field”. Just when an interesting anecdote grabs your attention, Isaacson holds you down and states how special Jobs was. So even when he recounts the famous Xerox PARC raid that Jobs conducted, stealing the GUI (Graphical User Interface) technologies, Isaacson has to come to his rescue and point out that Jobs was a visionary. It tells us as much about history writing — the fact that it is written by winners — as much about Isaacson’s own discomfort with his subject.

Chosen: Steve Jobs believed throughout his life, even as he transformed from an LSD-consuming, acid-dropping hacker into one of the most notorious businessmen and advertisers in the world, that he was chosen to do something special. He saw himself as a rebel pitched against the big establishment (largely IBM) and till the end of his days, continued to believe in the idea that he was here to change the world — and hey, if messianic activities were accompanied with a multi-billion dollar industry, that’s just god working in mysterious ways, right?

Isaacson suffers from Jobs’ “chosen” complex differently. He was singled out by Jobs to write this story. He saw himself as “suitably positioned” to tell the tale. And yet, because he brings to the table the keen reflexivity of a historian, he is uncomfortable with this chosen position. As a result, what you get is an extraordinarily rich set of resources which variously endorse, question, challenge and provide alternative viewpoints to the one expressed by Jobs. With more than 100 sources of interview, an incredibly rich survey of the literature about Apple and Jobs, and long hours spent in conversation with Jobs, Isaacson builds for us a book that might be loved or hated but can never be ignored. He goes into the controversies, digs out the dirt, ferrets out little-known encounters, fights and accusations that have hounded Jobs’ personal and professional life, and never hesitates to call a spade a spade, even if he sometimes finds the need to put a little glitter on it.

Abandoned: Isaacson begins the book in a linear narrative, which, when describing Jobs’ early days, is easy because it takes the form of a pastiche, where different beginnings of people like Steve Woznaik, Bill Atkinson, Nolan Bushnell, Deborah Coleman, Mike Markkula, etc. intersect with Jobs’ life. However, in the second half of the book, especially when we see Jobs’ return to Apple and take over the reins, the book starts feeling abandoned. Isaascon seems overwhelmed by the material, where he has to take care not only of his multi-star ensemble but all the different less visible people — employees, shareholders, partners, enemies — and their reactions to and interactions with Steve Jobs. It was as if, with Next and Pixar on the verge of collapse and Jobs nearly bankrupt, Isaacson abandons his subject. He tries to gather the fairy dust that surrounds Jobs’ ascendance, but the narrative remains lacklustre. The rich anecdotes — Jobs stealing the idea of a tablet from a Microsoft employee — and wrenching interviews with Jobs’ final battles with illness remain, but somewhere the narrative momentum seems to have floundered, and unlike Jobs’ fortunes, never pick up.

All in all, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs remains faithful to everything that one can expect of a biography of the true computing rock-star who shaped the collective futures of people. It is rigorous, honest, poignant and romantic. There will be many debates about how much Jobs’ reality distortion field affected Isaacson’s own rendering of his life. But those debates are futile. Because, despite the names, dates, figures, the agonising over-accurate perspectives and the attempt to write a history, the book , like Steve Jobs himself, is best read as a fairy tale — a mixture of the real, the imagined, the plausible, the probable and the possible.

This article by Nishant Shah was published in the Indian Express on 12 November 2011. The original can be read here


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