Review: Steve Jobs is a great story, not just a collection of quotes

Generally speaking, I steer clear of non-fiction when it comes to reading longer works. For Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, I definitely had to make an exception. And I’m glad I did, since as a storyteller, Isaacson really excels. If you take the time to look beyond the select outrageous quotes that have appeared in headlines everywhere for the past two weeks, you find a balanced telling of the life of a man who was far from balanced himself.

About people, more than products

Isaacson of course covers the products that Jobs labored over with such dark intensity, but for the most part, you won’t find any information here about Apple’s (s aapl) gadgets or devices that isn’t available elsewhere. And while the biographer seems to have a good enough grasp on what the products are and what they do (I doubt Jobs would have let them pen the story otherwise), he’s by no means an expert.

But expert technical knowledge might actually get in the way of the story of Jobs himself, and the people who were sucked into, and often spun out of, his considerable orbit. Jobs may have seen himself as a product visionary, but the iPod, the iPhone, the Mac — those don’t define him. He and his company are largely the result of the relationships he cultivated, and how he cultivated them, and Isaacson does a good job of tracking and objectively recounting the story of an amazing number of those relationships.

A perfect example of this is Isaacson’s account of the bizarre meeting, friendship and rivalry between Jobs and John Sculley, the Apple CEO who forced Jobs out of the company in 1985. In a way, the relationship between the two is the perfect microcosm of all the contradictions Jobs embodies, and the biography tells the story in a way that keeps you raptly turning pages.

Viewing the RDF from without

Jobs was known for his ability to weave a “reality distortion field,” wherein he could convince people of something (that an impossible timeline was doable, that an untrue statement was fact) through sheer force of will. Isaacson is clearly (and admittedly) enveloped by the RDF a few times during the course of his writing, since he worked very closely with Jobs, but he also manages to get outside it and give a good sense of how it looks to those on the outside peering in.

Isaacson also does a good job of presenting a balanced look at how the RDF (along with Jobs other personality quirks) were both harmful and beneficial to him during the course of his career. He isn’t afraid to point out when Jobs was in the wrong, and actually does so even in cases where others might argue the opposite. In this way, the book avoids being just another extension of Jobs’ RDF, yet also doesn’t feel like a stiff, dispassionate account from a watcher on high; Isaacson is on the ground, and unafraid to offer his two cents, albeit not in a thrusting way, when he feels it’s merited.

Does Jobs grow, or does he cultivate?

Maybe the most interesting thing about the Jobs biography is charting Jobs’ progress and waiting for the kinds of major revelations that turned his early failures into his later successes. But this isn’t fiction, and Isaacson luckily doesn’t seem compelled to artificially manufacture a watershed epiphany at the end of Act 2 that leads directly the highs of Act 3.

Steve Jobs is a complicated human being, with many obvious faults as a human being that negatively affected his work and personal relationships throughout his life. In the beginning, they did so to disastrous effect; that’s a big part of why he was pushed out at Apple to begin with. After his return, the effects were muted, but Isaacson’s story telling does a good job of keeping you wondering what exactly has changed. Some feel that’s a weakness, but I think it’s more about Isaacson avoiding making declaratory statements about a man whose internal life is anything but simple.

One possibility that comes to mind is that Jobs himself didn’t grow much from the quick-tempered and mercurial youth who often cried when things weren’t going his way. Instead, it seems like Jobs, realizing his failings, went out of his way to surround himself with people who would be able to handle them and keep them in check. In other words, Jobs didn’t grow; he just built himself a garden perfectly suited to the type of plant he was. Here’s a quote from near the end of the book that sums up the mysterious question of whether or not Jobs experienced much personal growth during his life:

“Yes,” Jobs answered. “I did learn some things along the way.” Then, a few minutes later, he repeated it, as if to reassure […] himself. “I did learn some things. I really did”

A human story

In the end, Isaacson’s book is a great human story. It covers a lot of ground for a book of its size, and it is neither hero-worship nor a vilification. It avoids the easy trap of just saying that the end result of what Jobs accomplished was worth the pain he caused along the way, but it also avoids saying that the human cost was too great.

Even if you’ve seen all the quotes and read the headlines, the Steve Jobs biography is well worth a read. Because as Jobs himself was fond of saying, “the journey is the reward,” and his is definitely a remarkable one.