Barefoot, Fruitarian, Genius

15 Nov

For weeks now, I’ve been mad at the Internet. Not for its usual follies—I’m all about animals riding skateboards—but for making it nearly impossible to avoid at least a dozen or more spoilers from the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.

I suppose it’s weird to consider tidbits from one of the most widely anticipated books of the year “spoilers,” but as someone who knew very little about the Apple founder outside of his job title and health status, I had been looking forward to the Isaacson book as a way to learn everything about the man in one fell (500-page) swoop. So you can imagine my frustration when every fifth Tweet (actual proportion exaggerated) for the last three weeks has contained some unanticipated factoid, some “aha” moment from the book that I might have otherwise savored for the first time when I cracked its spine last week.

…Alright, that’s kind of a lie. The truth is I started reading the Jobs book not because I found myself so truly interested in the world’s most interesting man, but because all the cool kids were reading it. (While we’re being honest, I don’t really like biographies. There are very few people about whom I care enough to read their life story, especially when a Wikipedia entry and a few well-researched magazine articles will suffice.) When a book attains a level of commercial success that makes it unavoidable, I simply feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon, slave that I am to pop culture. 

Which brings me to this week’s confession: Although I am less than halfway through Steve Jobs (the book), I feel that I must write my review at this very moment because, well, I just can’t keep it to myself anymore. Dear everyone who’s felt compelled to share some of the insanely interesting passages from Isaacson’s book even though it goes against all that is right and moral in the world of reviewing, I understand you now! I feel your pain. We are one.

The Jobs biography is, for lack of a more sophisticated word, amazing. Not only because Jobs himself was such an interesting person, but also because of Isaacson’s masterful interweaving of history, anecdotes, interviews and analysis. What you’re left with, as a reader, is page after page of fascinating narrative, the kind of stuff you want to turn to the person next to you on the subway and share. “Excuse me sir, did you know that Bill Gates called Steve Jobs ‘rude as shit’?” “Hello there, did you know Steve Jobs for a long time only ate fruit, showered once a week and walked everywhere barefoot?” “Pardon me, did you know Atari’s Nolan Bushnell passed on owning a third of Apple and instead walked away with less than $2,000 for his stake?” “Excuse me ma’am, CAN YOU IMAGINE PASSING ON A THIRD OF APPLE?!”

I knew going into this book that I was perhaps spectacularly uninformed about Jobs—I’ve never considered myself one of the Apple cult, and only made the switch to a Mac because, well, again, because it seemed cool. (I’m disgusting, I know.) So maybe I was more positioned than most to enjoy Isaacson’s comprehensive retelling of Jobs’ life. Then again, I find it hard to believe even the most informed of the Apple crowd weren’t riveted by interviews with Jobs’s former coworkers, girlfriends and bosses; didn’t find themselves nodding at anecdotes about his obsession with industrial design; didn’t find themselves staring absentmindedly at their iPhones as they imagined being a part of the device’s creation.

It goes without saying that Jobs, even in his own biography and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight—Isaacson’s last interview was conducted over the summer—comes across as kind of a dick. There isn’t a single person Isaacson spoke to who couldn’t attest—whether still angry about it or simply bemused—to Jobs’s mercurial nature, his tendency to steal ideas, berate employees and condescend to pretty much everyone. The unspoken question is whether or not his contributions to the world of technology made his temper and management style worth the trouble—unspoken because the answer is “Uh, of course.”

I wish this was a more cohesive post—in a bit non-irony, I’ve been using my own iPhone to leave myself nonsensical “voice memos” with ideas for this review (example of one I don’t understand and honestly don’t remember recording: “Is Apple reality TV?”)—but my primary goal in doing this review before I’d finished the book was to encourage those who might have been on the fence about Steve Jobs (again, the book) not to be discouraged by its length, subject matter or any perceived technological limitation. Isaacson’s writing is incredibly accessible, and even though he spends a decent amount of time describing the hardware and software decisions made by Jobs throughout Apple’s history, rarely did I feel lost in the explanations (which is very encouraging for my new goal of reading Isaacson’s 2007 biography of Albert Einstein).

So pick up this book guys, in part because I can’t promise not to spoil it before you do. I can’t promise that I won’t spend the rest of this week writing the exact type of posts I’ve been begrudging bloggers this last month, full of factoids and rife with the kinds of Jobs-worshiping starry-eyed drivel that prompted a Gawker post like this one just a day after he died. The difference though, between Jobs’s biography and the tributes that appeared in the weeks after his death, is that Isaacson doesn’t look at Steve Jobs through rose-colored glasses. Which makes it feel okay not to, which—I highly suspect—is exactly what Steve Jobs would have wanted.

THE VERDICT: 

I’ve spent the last 2,000 words or so extolling the virtues of this book, so I’d prefer to close with an interesting fun fact, which has made its way around the Internet enough that I don’t feel too bad for disclosing it here: Steve Jobs liked acid! Rather, he believed in the benefits of seeing the “big picture,” which, let’s be honest, is really at its biggest 5 hours into a 12-hour trip (not…that I would know.) So much did Steve Jobs appreciate the mind-opening properties of LSD that even after he was no longer a major user, he’d ask others about it, in interviews, on college campuses—Jobs’s main motivational refrains seemed to be “When did you lose your virginity?” and “Have you ever done LSD?” He even says Bill Gates “would have been a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.”

I suppose, given the kind of company Apple is and the things they’ve created—the Visualizer—it isn’t  surprising that the man at the helm enjoyed a good trip. But it does speak to the fact that when Steve Jobs said “think different,” he wasn’t just talking about a computer that could balance your checkbook. He wanted his employees to dream up the impossible and bring it into existence, something they did time and time again. I’m not saying hallucinogens are a must-have for successful business leaders, but for a vision like that, they certainly can’t hurt.

THE FACTS: 
—————————————————————————-
TITLE: Steve Jobs
—————————————————————————-
AUTHOR: Walter Isaacson
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PAGES: 571 (in hardcover)
—————————————————————————-
ALSO WROTE:  Einstein: His Life And Universe and Kissinger: A Biography
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SORTA LIKE: Other biographies, only better?
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FIRST LINE: “In the early summer of 2004, I got a call from Steve Jobs.”

5 Responses to “Barefoot, Fruitarian, Genius”

  1. Tim P November 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Apple is about as responsible for the visualizer as it is for do a barrel roll.

    Sources!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_visualization
    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2011/11/do-a-barrel-roll-google-channels-apple-and-nintendo/ (with bonus points for that being rewritten to make the author look like less of a dumbass)

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