Steve Jobs is one of those rare modern figures who could legitimately claim to have changed the world or, as he phrased it, “put a dent in the universe.” But what personal demons drove Jobs to make such an indelible mark on not just technology, but humanity? Those are the questions that journalist turned biographer Walter Isaacson attempts to answer in Steve Jobs, the dense and detailed account of the man, his personal life, and his stunning career.


What I like

  • Frankness: Steve Jobs was a very troubled man, as even his closest and most devoted friends and family would admit. We know this because Jobs’s friends and family admit it on the record, in detail, in this book. One benefit of having a biography written during the subject’s lifetime is access to original sources and witnesses, and Isaacson takes a journalist’s full advantage. He also doesn’t pull any punches. Jobs has many an unkind word for his former associates, employees, and rivals, and they for him — and all of it is there, quoted verbatim, on the page. The narcissism, anger, genius, and insight that drove Jobs to success and failure is on full display, including from Jobs himself.
  • Suspension of inevitability: As with all posthumous biographies, we know the ending. Jobs is destined to be a success, make world-changing devices, and die at a mere 56, his work somewhat incomplete. Nonetheless, Isaacson manages to recapture the sense that — in the moment — ultimate victory was far from assured. The account of Jobs’s original termination from Apple conveys the sense of defeat, perhaps permanent, that Jobs likely felt at the time. The mercurial career of a mercurial man is apparent, as is the emotional tenor of most every other major life event depicted in the book.
  • Design: As Isaacson acknowledges in his foreword, Jobs had input on the look and feel of his authorized biography, and it shows. From the minimalist cover design to the typesetting to the sparing use of grayscale photography, Steve Jobs comes across as very much the sort of book Steve Jobs would have created.

What I don’t like

  • Non-linear timeline: Isaacson’s narrative follows the general chronology of Jobs’s career, but it also attempts to break major events into their own discrete chapters. Jobs’s oversight of Pixar is its own chapter, but it overlaps with the end of his first stint at Apple and his time at NeXT. This arrangement makes an extremely long book easy to sample piecemeal, but also makes it hard to get a solid idea of what events are happening when. The same is true of relationships, as some of Jobs’s more memorable romantic pairings earn their chapters or subchapters, which is both somewhat distracting and further muddles the timeline. I know Jobs dated Joan Baez, but not when, and I don’t know what projects he was working on at the time. I’d like to think romancing a folk music legend had some effect on Jobs’s work, but I don’t know how the two experiences connect. It’s both confusing and dissatisfying.
  • Inobjectivity: It’s right there on the cover: Walter Isaacson gets near equal billing with Steve Jobs. There’s never any doubt that Isaacson himself is the narrator here, and his own opinions about events and individuals shine through with regularity. Some of that is fair, as Isaacson spent time with Jobs and his family in developing the biography, but there are plenty of moments where the book reads as Isaacson’s pop-psych analysis of Jobs rather than an objective account of past events. Isaacson is a gifted journalist, but I’d like to have seen less of him in this book and more of Jobs.
  • Writing for the fanboys: Of the 656 pages in this book, only a few over 500 are actually the biography. The rest is forewords, acknowledgements, a sprawling index of sources, and a massive list of referenced characters — and the latter is sadly often necessary. For those who followed enough of Apple and Jobs to know automatically who Daniel Kottke or Mike Markkula are, this book reads very smoothly. For the rest of us, the biography can often seem like an inside-baseball account of Jobs written exclusively for regular readers of Daring Fireball. Any biography that needs a chapter-long Who’s Who cheat sheet has a basic structural problem.

Geek bottom line

In the end, Steve Jobs is a great deal like Steve Jobs: ambitious, intriguing, flawed, and incomplete. Having read the book, I have a much fuller understanding of precisely how troubled Jobs was and how fortunate and unexpected his success came to be. He was an extraordinary individual by any account, for both good and ill. That said, I’m not sure how accurate or impartial the account found in this biography really is. You can’t help but learn about the man from reading Steve Jobs, which is the point of any biography. Ultimately, if Jobs intrigues you as a subject, it’s certainly worth indulging this take on what made him, and Apple, truly extraordinary.

Geek Gift Score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: **
  • Geek factor: ***
  • Value: **
  • Overall: **

Note: Simon & Schuster, a CBS brand, provided TechRepublic with a review copy of the book for this review.

For more reviews of tech gadgets, gizmos, games, and books, download the PDF of TechRepublic’s Geek Gift Guide 2011.