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"Steve Jobs," by Walter Isaacson

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So, this is something different.

As a lot of you know, I am an avid reader. There are times when I read something and feel like talking or writing about the book I just read. And it occurred to me recently...hey, I have a blog. Yes, it is a baseball blog, but that doesn't mean I can't write about a book I just read if it strikes my fancy.

So, from time to time, when nothing else is going on, I may decide to share my thoughts on a book I just read. If you aren't interested, feel free to ignore this post. If you are interested, after the jump, read about what I thought of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

Isaacson is a well-regarded writer and biographer, having been a long-time writer at Time Magazine, editor of Time Magazine, and CEO of CNN, as well as having written well-reviewed biographies of Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Franklin. I read Isaacson's Franklin biography a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it.

Isaacson was asked by Jobs in the summer of 2004 to be his biographer, when Jobs first was stricken with pancreatic cancer, but didn't start work on the biography until 2009. He interviewed Jobs extensively -- there were reportedly over 40 interviews with Jobs in all -- as well as talking to a multitude of others in the course of putting together the book.

I'm not a Mac user, but I grew up using Apple computers...I had an Apple II+ as a kid growing up, and it was on that machine that I learned to program (in BASIC), as well as how to type, by virtue of laboriously typing in line after line of BASIC code from books of programs I would buy. If you're under 40, you probably don't know what I'm talking about, but if you're my age or a little older, you may remember what I'm talking about, buying books or magazines that contained pages of BASIC code that you'd type in yourself in order to have a simple text hockey game, or something like that, which you'd then save on a 5 1/4 inch floppy. In my teens, we got an Apple IIc, and by then I was actually buying games, but it wasn't until the mid-90s, when Apple had become largely irrelevant, that I got my first PC.

In any case, one thing that Isaacson's book makes clear...Jobs was a crazy asshole. People talk about narcissists all the time, but Jobs, as described in this biography, is about as textbook a case of someone dealing with Narcissistic personality disorder as you'll ever come across. One of the themes that Isaacson drives home, that people who knew him, whether they liked him or not, say throughout the book, is that Jobs felt rules didn't apply to him. The examples that are brought up repeatedly in the book are that he refused to put a license plate on his car and that he parked in handicapped spots (even at Apple, where he could have had his own reserved parking spot if he wished), but it is something that was consistent in everything he did, particularly his dealings with others, be they investors, employees, vendors, competitors, or superiors.

What makes Jobs' issues appear in even greater contrast is the behavior of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The two become friends when each is in their teens, and while Wozniak is the older of the two, he's immature, socially awkward, and much more of the stereotypical geek. Wozniak seems to be generally beloved by those who dealt with him, and is described as a kind and gentle man...a workaholic, but one working for the sake of accomplishment, not because of any personal gain. The re-telling of the early years of the two Steves is particularly compelling reading...I'm not really a Harry Potter fan, but it struck me while reading the book that the perfect way to categorize the two would be to say that, if they were at Hogwarts, Wozniak would be sorted to Hufflepuff, and Jobs would be in Slytherin.

Most of us know the story behind Jobs and Apple, how Jobs founded Apple with Wozniak, was ultimately forced out, spent a decade in the wilderness forming NeXT and turning LucasFilms' computer graphics department into Pixar, and then returned to Apple, not only saving the company, but turning it into one of the biggest and most successful companies in America. The details of the journey, though, are still Jobs ended up overseeing the Mac because he was being squeezed out of other areas of the company by the "grown ups" who were brought in to run it, how Jobs found himself at the age of 30 booted from the company he started, the mistakes he made at NeXT that taught him lessons he implemented at Apple the second time around, how he kept Pixar afloat until it found a niche -- animated movies -- that it ultimately was able to dominate.

One of the things that comes through in reading about Jobs is that he viewed the world in binary terms...he either loved something or hated it, people were geniuses or bozos, something was great or it was "shit." His life also seemed to be lived in a binary way, but with Jobs occupying both poles simultaneously. He was adopted, fathered his own child out of wedlock at an early age, and then refused to take responsibility for, or acknowledge, his daughter for years (despite naming an early Apple product, the "Lisa," after her). He was a counter-culture anti-materialist whose start in business came when he refused to allow "Woz" to give away the original Apple specs (as Wozniak wished to do), and instead insisted on selling completed systems for a profit. He was a strong, domineering personality who would abuse underlings, colleagues, even servers in restaurants at the drop of a hat, but who was also an inveterate crier who shed tears in front of others on a regular basis. He was the CEO of a high tech company who dabbled in esoteric diets and tried to cure his cancer with non-conventional methods before finally acceding to surgery (a delay that quite possibly, ultimately, ended up costing him his life).

Jobs was, ultimately, a true visionary, someone who, as he stated in the book, saw himself standing at the crossroads of technology and humanities. He was an artist who turned the entire idea of high tech on its head by elevating the importance of design, obsessing over levels of detail in the form of his products to a degree that seems, even now, to be insane. But Jobs felt that if he could make Apple's products attractive, stylish, appealing, intuitive, that people would ultimately flock to them. Jobs was convinced that he knew best, eschewing market research in lieu of the belief that consumers would want what he told them to want, insisting on a closed system of end-to-end control by Apple because he didn't want outsiders screwing up what he was creating, telling those who created for him that they could do what he wanted done, even when they knew otherwise. One of the recurring themes was Jobs' "reality distortion field," his ability to convince those around him that his version of reality was true, his ability to impose his will upon others in a way that made the seemingly impossible become possible.

I mentioned to my father that I was reading this book, and he said he had read it, even though his initial reaction was that he didn't want to read it. I asked him why he didn't want to read it initially, and he said, "I didn't want to read about Steve Jobs because Jobs was a jerk, and I didn't want to read about a jerk. But I read it anyway, and he was a jerk, but he was a really fascinating jerk."

And that's true. Jobs was a jerk...I don't know that you can come away from this book thinking otherwise. But he was a genius, and an artist, and someone who had an incredible vision that he was, amazingly, able to bring to fruition. If you read this biography, you aren't going to like Steve Jobs, but I think you will be fascinated by him, and will likely, in some form or fashion, admire and respect him.