Manjoo: The New Steve Jobs Biography Offers Gossip, but Not Insight

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 25 2011 6:45 PM

Jobs the Jerk

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the Apple CEO is full of juicy tales about Jobs’ ego, but it doesn’t explain what made him tick.

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Jobs also seemed to suspect that he wasn’t really wounding the people he berated. If you were a bozo, why wouldn’t you want to know it? “I don’t stay mad,” he protested to Ive. Some friends suggest that he simply lacked empathy—or, as Tina Redse, a longtime former girlfriend, says, that he suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s also quite likely that he was afflicted with an eating disorder. All his life, Jobs experimented with various extreme diets. (He’d fast for days, eat only certain kinds of fruits for weeks, and proclaim himself cleansed and invigorated after all of it.) He kept this up even after he got sick—indeed, for nine months after his cancer diagnosis, he refused surgery and tried various dietary cures, some of which he found online. His wife explored psychiatric treatment for his food issues, but Jobs refused.

Instead of offering any substantive explanations for what made Jobs so good at what he did, then, Isaacson’s book functions as a breezy chronology of his life. Some of it is thrilling—the tick-tock on Jobs’ ouster from Apple, the few chapters devoted to his time at Pixar, and the passages on his early experiments with Buddhism and Eastern philosophies are great yarns. Even the stories of his personal deficiencies are fun to read. Once, when he was dating Joan Baez, he told her about a beautiful Ralph Lauren dress that “would be perfect for you.” When Baez said she’d never been to a Polo shop, he drove her there in his Mercedes. “I said to myself, far out, terrific, I’m with one of the world’s richest men and he wants me to have this beautiful dress,” Baez says. But when they got to the store, Jobs showed her the dress, then bought some shirts for himself. “You really ought to buy it,” he told Baez—and when she told him she couldn’t afford it, they left the store without the dress. He never mentioned it again. “He was both romantic and afraid to be romantic,” Baez said. His relationship with Laurene Powell, the saintly woman who would become his wife, was similarly quirky. In 1990, he proposed to her twice—each time, she accepted, and each time, he demurred about whether he really wanted to marry her. The second time, he even began to ask friends if Powell was good enough for him: “Who was prettier, Tina or Laurene? Who did they like better? Whom should he marry?”

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Jobs’ death prompted a flurry of hagiographic tributes, and in some ways, Isaacson’s book serves as a necessary corrective. Jobs was a genius, and what he accomplished at Apple will be remembered for decades to come. But the book neatly pierces the myth that he was the font of all the company’s great ideas. In fact, it’s best when it recounts his many mistakes and near-mistakes: His time at NeXT, the company he founded after being pushed out from Apple, was a comedy of autocratic excess. (He spent an inordinate amount of time choosing the color of the paint for machines in his factories—machines that later sat idle.) He was also on the wrong side of some of the most pivotal decisions Apple has made over the last decade. He didn’t want to make a Windows version of the iPod and iTunes; when all of his lieutenants fought him on it, he eventually conceded they were right, though grudgingly: “Screw it. I’m sick of listening to you assholes. Go do whatever the hell you want.” He was also against adding apps to the iPhone, and it took him a long time to see that Pixar’s greatest asset was its filmmakers. (He’d initially been interested in making a mass-market version of its software.)

It’s clear that in Jobs’ last 15 years of life, something in him changed: He suddenly became a better manager, he got better at predicting the kinds of technologies that people would want, and he got better at picking experienced subordinates (and, sometimes, at listening to what they had to say). The only time Jobs really alludes to these changes is in a mesmerizing section that is ostensibly about the music he listens to. During an interview in his living room, he plays two versions of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” recorded by Glenn Gould—the first recording made when Gould was 22, and the second nearly 30 years later. Jobs also plays two takes of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” the first recorded in 1969, and the second in 2000. “It’s interesting how people age,” he tells Isaacson as he listens to the music. Later on, just after he resigns from Apple, he tells a friend, “I did learn some things. I really did.” But that’s all we get. Jobs recognizes that he changed for the better as he aged, and he sees that he learned some things along the way. How he changed, why, what he learned, and how he was able to pull off the greatest corporate miracle the world has ever seen remains a mystery. And, sadly, it may remain one forever.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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