Review: Steve Jobs Bio Needs the Deathbed Confession

Walter Isaacson’s 600-page doorstop lacks the part in which the sacred monster comes out from behind his objects and confesses to his sins

It’s with the greatest respect for the legacy of Steve Jobs and the storytelling prowess of author Walter Isaacson that I have to confess: I arrived at the end of the book they made together with a sense that it’s all somehow … ordinary.

“Was he smart?” Isaacson says in the book’s final pages. “No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.” 

So is this expansive, exhaustively thorough and balanced doorstop of over 600 pages a work of genius — the kind Isaacson nudged close to in say, his Einstein or Benjamin Franklin biographies?  

No. But it is exceptionally … workmanlike.

Already a runaway hit via a staggering volume of downloads and hard-cover purchases, the book is an undeniable event.

With its minimalist black and white cover — a cover reconfigured by the inexhaustible perfectionist Jobs — it’s the Apple wizard’s last great marketing coup.

Touchingly, and you know he means it because he was notoriously thin-skinned when criticized — Jobs authorized a warts-and-all portrait because, as he said, “I wanted my kids to know me.”

The very closeness Isaacson necessarily achieved with his terminally ill subject, in the view of noted Jobs savant Joe Nocera of the New York Times, “made it nearly impossible for Isaacson to get the kind of critical distance he needed to take his subject’s true measure. He didn’t just interview Jobs; he watched him die.”

It’s asking a lot of even resolute researcher Isaacson to bring Jobs fully to account for his churlishness, his reflexive selfishness, his self-delusion, his casual and sometimes not so casual cruelties. But since that never really happens — Jobs in passing admits a to a couple errors, but seem to bury real contrition with his storied magical realism — this feels like 85 percent of the story without the redemptive part, in which the sacred monster would come out from behind his objects and confess to his sins.

Attempts at pulling insight out of the man are rebuffed at times by Jobs’ singular tunnel vision. Early on Isaacson, proceeding from the wizard’s confessed early love for “Moby-Dick” and “King Lear,” asks him if that’s because he relates to their “willful and driven” central characters.

And then? “He didn’t respond to the connection I was making, so I let it drop.”

Jobs admits to being “ashamed” just once, for refusing to let his parents accompany him onto the Reed College campus when he matriculated in the fall of 1972.

Readers may give Isaacson points for his delicacy, but such openings seem rare. Much later, with Jobs on his deathbed, there are more lost opportunities for the summarizing mea culpas: “By then his eyes were closed and his energy gone, so I took my leave.”

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask Isaacson, after all the testimony he’s assembled showing Jobs’ tyrannical style, to sit at his bedside like Church Lady, calling him to account. But the result is a sense of incompletion, of the quarry having once again — and now irretrievably — eluded the pursuer.

The Times' Janet Maslin found more to like: "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".

A longtime editor at Time Magazine, and later kingpin at CNN before moving on to write his series of  histories of great men, Isaacson does have a knack for plainspoken if sometimes plodding prose that gets the point across. An edge of wry Southern wit  from the New Orleans-raised author animates scattered insights — "Job's craziness was of the cultivated sort" he says, referring to his subject's vegan diet — but his key service to the reader is in consistently finding the telling quote, like this one from early girlfriend Chrisann Brennan: "He was an enlightened being who was cruel … that's a strange combination."

That Isaacson repeats this quote from Chapter 3 in Chapter 7 is perhaps a symptom of what was clearly a rush to publish after Job's death.

Jobs told Isaacson — as related by the author on a “60 Minutes” segment that was merely the opening bell in a promotional push that will be hard to equal — “I have no skeletons in my closet.”

Indeed, Jobs’ inconsideration towards his significant others, his abandonment for many years of his illegitimate daughter, Lisa, and his storied and often savage outbursts in the workplace, are the stuff of legend.

Similarly his self-delusion about his own foibles and virtues, and his corollary, much-chronicled “reality distortion field,” are by now familiar to many of us.

The charisma and the expertly staged appearances to present new products are also very familiar.

We may have heard about the screaming, the summary firings, the unjust refusals to share the credit and the profits, through the industry and media grapevine, but many of us ignored it. (And, again, despite Isaacson’s craft and observation and dogged reporting, they unfold here in a rather dreary procession.)

I once had the opportunity to interview Jobs on the phone, while reporting on the rise of Pixar circa 1995.

He was cordial enough through our allotted 15 minutes until I tried to shade into a question about Apple’s plans for various upcoming content deals;  he suggested with some acerbity that we “just stay on our topic”.

Jobs was, as Isaacson told “60 Minutes,” “not the world’s best manager — in fact one of the world’s worst managers, upending things and throwing things into turmoil.”

The lengthy account of Jobs’ bromance with John Sculley, who he brought in to run Apple, and the subsequent alienation ending in the founder being kicked to the curb by his former friend, made this reader want to leave the room, or in this case the book, to get away from the embittered subject.

Life is too short to endure, however vicariously, his dissembling, his tirades, his relentless egotism and manipulation. As Nocera says, the book “offers so many examples of his awful behavior — incorrigible bullying, belittling and lying — that you’re soon numb to them.”

And yet, many Apple customers who have been more in love with Jobs’ expertly crafted devices than their creator, who celebrate what they have wrought in our lives, and have had the advantage of support from employees who were trained to be far more gracious than their boss, may very well want to read this book.

The music lover who not only met Dylan but cherished a long romance with his hero’s former lover, Joan Baez; the traveler who saw beautiful stone from a certain remote Italian quarry and selected that for the floors of his stores; and yes, the devoted son who ultimately had the good grace to (mostly) treat his adoptive parents and his late-discovered sibling, Mona Simpson, with great consideration, is still worth our attention.

It’s not as if you can’t put the book down. But much like some of those devices that eschewed on-off switches and strove to make our experience of our gadgets a seamless one, it sits there beckoning you back to discover what else it may offer. Taken at that level, and as a primer for a comprehensive Silicon Valley timeline as seen from Apple's Cupertino outpost, it's a useful if not epochal piece of modern history.