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In Robert Redford's profound Quiz Show, a parable about America in the form of the story of fixing the game show Twenty One, Scorsese in a rare acting turn portraying Geritol executive Martin Rittenhome explains that game show's appeal: "You see, the audience didn't tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money." That quote sums up most of the commercial appeal of Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of corporate titan Steve Jobs: Americans are obsessed with billionaires. From the insipid The Social Network to last week's 60 Minutes profiling Warren Buffett's kid (He's not getting most of the billions! Can you believe it?) to Trump, to Bloomberg, we can't stop watching the money. The book reflects many of the flaws of our culture, and of celebrity journalism. While playing to wonderful reviews, it is ok, but could have been much more.
There is no question that Jobs is one of the most compelling figures in our recent history. This is not true because he died a billionaire, astride what had just become the world's most valuable company. It's true because he invented things that matter (the original Apple computer, for example), and was a visionary who was part of teams that created the iPhone and iPad. It's true because before his meteoric rise, he dropped out of college, and had his own counterculture experiences, and even though he had been abandoned by his birth parents, ended up reprising that by not being a father for many years to a daughter he had out of wedlock. It's true because he loved art and creativity passionately, from spending lots of his own money and time to nurture and preserve the nascent Pixar to dating Joan Baez (yep). Jobs' fall from Apple in the mid-80s, and his championing an ultimately failed computing business (NeXT) also contain in it the seeds of the fall and rise that have made for good plays since Shakespeare. In short, it would be impossible to relate these facts in even a workmanlike way and screw up the story. Isaacson is a good paragraph-by-paragraph writer; crisp sentences, you know where he's going. The pages turn. As they would if most anyone wrote an adequate tale of this subject. And Isaacson's prose is more than adequate. So the book tells a good story reasonably well.
The principal problem is that the book is really an bank-shot of artful communication by Jobs himself from beyond the grave through a theoretically independent author. Isaacson makes a big point of how Jobs -- who picked him to write the book, coaxed him into writing it, and gave him over 40 interviews -- granted him independence. But that is like saying you are granted independence in how you read something that is already presented to you largely pre-formed. It is jammed full of good and colorful stories that most always amount to the same heroic narrative. Boy, compared to Jobs, that Bill Gates sure is a spineless, derivative copier! Boy, Steve Jobs really punked that obnoxious Michael Eisner! Boy, Steve Jobs was so cool, he seduced Dylan and Bono into deals with iTunes! And so forth. The book is constructed by turns around great anecdotes of personal heroism or coolness, largely furnished by Jobs, and gushing, adulatory product porn, as if the book were a co-biography of Jobs and the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It is telling that on the jacket the book is described in tiny type as "Biography/Autobiography." Yup. Just that.
Jobs' hand is clear in what it does not talk about in much of any detail. Either because Jobs was dying, or because Isaacson didn't dig deep enough, you are told conclusorily that Jobs is "obnoxious" -- but you really don't hear from people other than a list of celebrities and Apple senior folk who would be less disposed to explain the meanspiritedness and impactful nature of his nasty side. The personal absences are more notable. There is almost nothing about his time with his family and with wife Laurene. We get momentary glimpses, but only that. Consider that there is an entire book-length co-biography of John and Abigail Adams telling the story of their marriage. Though Jobs' family was there during the writing, and the biography "authorized," we get what seem like Jobs' own pre-approved self-criticisms: not there enough for the family, there more for his son, dropped briefly and matter-of-factly, like recitations of corporate moves elsewhere in the book. Jobs' death? The reader knows it happens, but it's not discussed, nor his private funeral service. Janet Maslin's New York Times review of the book suggests that it is a virtue that the book only hints without much analysis at connections between Jobs' abandonment in childhood and his fanatically controlling nature. As she curiously puts it: "Fortunately, that glib question stays unanswered."
Here, Maslin is wrong: it stays unanswered because it was not Isaacson's job to answer it (and like Isaacson's other omissions to analyze, not trying to answer it is not "fortunate" for the reader). Had Isaacson exercised true freedom, interviewed more of the folks Jobs browbeat over the years, or dined with over the years, or worked his legendary charms upon over the years, it presumably would have allowed a more robust analysis of his subject's interiority and emotionality -- one Jobs honestly richly deserved. Instead, we see those events through Jobs' eyes, and too often in a flatly sympathetic cast. To construct Jobs from a distance -- the very thing hiring Isaacson was meant to preempt -- would be a better read, and better history, though one can understand Isaacson's failure to write it with Jobs just having died, and having spent such time with him (and around his grieving family) while he was dying. The book also fails to mention the date or physical circumstances of Jobs' death or funeral, though if you read about Alexander the Great, FDR, or any other outsized figure, you get that. Why? Jobs' and his family's privacy trump the reader's interest. Privacy is great, but this is more of Jobs' control-freakiness shining through. The same guy who redesigned the iPhone to fit it with screws no commercial screwdriver could open so you couldn't look inside shines through in all his controllingness in Isaacson's silences.
It is not that Isaacson's brisk and well-written march through product releases and corporate decisionmaking -- which is so much of this long book -- is uninteresting or a valueless read. It is not. But it is superficial. We are told in passing that almost a decade ago, Apple apparently backdated options for Jobs' benefit, and its general counsel (head in-house lawyer) was fined $2.2 million over it, but that Jobs skated, though it was to benefit him. Ho hum. We learn in passing that most of the Apple board had no recriminations about Jobs lying to and misleading the investing public about the very sad but highly material facts of his own health, and the one board member who resigned in disgust over it comes off (in Isaacson's brief and unanalytic treatment) like an outlying, perspectiveless curmudgeon. Isaacson throws the facts out there for balance, but fails to raise the deeper question of whether Jobs' legendary "reality distortion field" here constituted special rules for the super-rich or for celebrities. The question seems not to have occurred to Isaacson, or perhaps it just doesn't interest him. This is mediocre celebrity journalism, as much as most sportswriting is. The author is so compromised by access, he cannot frame issues with appropriate distance.
In the same spirit, we hear a quote here and there from Bill Gates, often to laud Jobs' innovation and sense of design. We learn of Jobs' rivalry with Gates and his dislike of Microsoft's products. But did Jobs ever ask himself whether monopolism can be bad? Is Apple, in some domains, turning into the new Microsoft? And is that bad, either for Apple or for us? Does it threaten Apple's culture of innovation? And even if not, is it bad to have a company as dominant as Microsoft was with its operating system in 1998, or as dominant as Apple is now in music distribution and media? Has Apple done some of the very same things within its market that made people resent Microsoft? Isaacson again skates on the surface. Jobs, we are told, had a hard time (because of his innate arrogance) being a graceful market-dominant actor. That sounds balanced, because it's negative, but it scores style points, nothing deeper. The book's perspective is one of cheerleading Jobs' and Apple's march toward market dominance, with Isaacson's crisp prose reprising the sexy, pulsing thump of hipster music in an Apple commercial. (And the commercials, in turn, come in for great and lengthy praise too -- remember my lede, we're watching the money, folks.) The message is clear: Jobs is a winner, that's cool, his products are sexy and cool. But that's about it. To paraphrase and extend the Apple slogan, think different, but don't think too much. A critique of Apple itself would be too analytic and edgy for a book like this.
America can fulfill its billionaire jones by reading this homage to Apple and its products, and to its fascinating leader, who did lead an epic life, as Isaacson documents. But this book could have been so much richer. The history of our era is largely the history of technology, and Isaacson's book does for that history what William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich did for World War II. It set out lots and lots of facts in a simple and largely unexamined narrative, like a news story. The analysis will be left to other, later historians, who didn't sit on Jobs' bed picking out pictures for the book, who didn't suggest to Jobs that he call his estranged daughter, and who weren't asked to write about Jobs. You would be better served to wait for that work. Or a treatment of the parallel lives of Gates (child of privilege) and Jobs (not), which would be fascinating if done right. Until then, did you know that Apple became the world's most valuable company this summer? Really, it did. Look it up on your iPhone, and watch the money. Just don't unscrew the iPhone when you're doing it. Steve doesn't want you looking inside.