“What is truth? asked jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.” —Francis Bacon, 1601, “Of Truth”
On 24 March 2015, a new book, “Becoming Steve Jobs” by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, went on sale in the United States, and, as with so many things Apple-related, it garnered a great deal of business and technology press attention. And why not? The story has multiple click-bait hooks: secretive Apple, the mercurial Steve Jobs, and a battle for truth!
Dispatches from the Battlefront -- Stephen Levy characterizes the story as “The War Over Who Steve Jobs Was”: he describes how friends, family, and colleagues closest to Steve Jobs have long felt that “Steve Jobs,” the biography that Walter Isaacson published in 2011, “focused too heavily on the Apple CEO’s worst behavior, and failed to present a 360-degree view of the person they knew.”
And now they’ve struck back. Apple executives and Jobs intimates (including Apple’s Tim Cook and Jony Ives, Pixar’s Ed Catmull, and Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs) not only granted interviews about Jobs to Schlender and Tetzeli but also encouraged others to do the same. Apple as a corporation jumped on the bandwagon, with a formal statement to the New York Times about the book, saying that “we are happy we decided to participate.” The Schlender-Tetzeli book’s marketing page leads with Ed Catmull’s contentious pull-quote: “I hope that it will be recognized as the definitive history.”
History, it seems, is at stake. Isaacson, who was hand-picked by Jobs to write his biography, and to whom Jobs granted dozens of intimate interviews even as he was dying, can’t be blamed if he feels a little beleaguered at the moment.
One Is a Biography -- Isaacson, to be clear, did not set out to write, nor did he publish, a tell-all smear job. He wrote, as he did for Albert Einstein and for Benjamin Franklin, a standard biography, a detailed account of an historical figure’s life, supported by as many documented facts as possible.
What more, it’s an authorized biography, written at the invitation of Jobs himself, and part of the brief he was given, as reiterated by Laurene Powell Jobs (who later criticized the finished product), was this:
There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth. […] You shouldn’t whitewash it. He’s good at spin, but he also has a remarkable story, and I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully.
The book, then, has no explicit agenda other than to portray, as objectively as it can (and as any successful biography must), the facts of its subject’s life. Isaacson’s book is not, however, mere reportage: he does state that it is also “a book about innovation,” a topic of great interest to him, and he notes that it offers “lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.” But those lessons, for the most part, are for the reader to draw as they emerge from the facts presented.
A biographer needs to cut through the legends to the underlying facts that gave rise to those legends, with a minimum of editorializing, especially when a biography is about a controversial character, like Steve Jobs, about whom many legends have grown. To his credit, Isaacson attempts to do just that, and, for the most part, he succeeds.
It’s Isaacson’s bad luck that Jobs died just as the book was nearing completion, and worse luck that the first time that Jobs’ inner circle saw the manuscript was mere days after his funeral, when the last thing that any of those who loved Jobs wanted or needed to see was a clear-eyed assessment of the man, with all his virtues and flaws in full view — not when his death was a freshly gaping wound in their own lives.
One Is a Bildungsroman -- Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, on the other hand, are not attempting an authoritative biography. Theirs is a somewhat novelistic account — for example, though the book is a collaboration, it is presented as Schlender’s first-person account — and it comes with an explicit agenda: to explain how Steve Jobs “turned around his life and became the greatest visionary leader of our time.” If it were an actual novel, it would be a Bildungsroman, a novel about the coming of age and the education and character development of its protagonist.
To that end, the book deals lightly with historical detail, choosing those facts and events that are best suited to support the book’s agenda and arranging them appropriately. One case in point is the early description of how the young Jobs got backing for the early Apple Computer. In the Schlender and Tetzeli account, Jobs used his brashness and persistence, “tirelessly” navigating Silicon Valley’s experts “one phone call and one meeting at a time, until he finally found himself connected with Regis McKenna,” the “marketing whiz” who then put him in touch with the other Silicon Valley players who would help nurture Jobs’ nascent enterprise. As recounted in much more detail by Isaacson, McKenna came on board relatively late in the story, and through a process far more circuitous than Schlender and Tetzeli describe — but that tale does not highlight Jobs’s heroic persistence and is as much about the Silicon Valley culture of the era as it is about Jobs.
Similarly, late in the book, the account of the iPod rollout is portrayed as being an unalloyed success, and that “technology writers and reviewers and other cognoscenti wound up raving in print about features Apple hadn’t even touted.” To be sure, the device was well-received for the most part, but even those who were impressed (such as our own Jeff Carlson in “iPod Makes Music More Attractive,” 29 October 2001), noted the original device’s limitations and high price, and many were skeptical. Such nuances, however, do not fit the heroic narrative arc being constructed at this point in the book.
In fact, accurate detail is not this book’s concern at all, which may be why it includes many minor errors of fact: for example, the original Apple 1 had a 6502 processor, not a “6800” as Schlender and Tetzeli say; the first Macintosh was not “ivory” but beige (Pantone 453, to be exact); nor did the iPad 2 feature a flash to accompany its rear-facing camera.
But such trivial errata are irrelevant. Schendler, reporter though he is, is also someone whom Jobs considered a friend, who frequently visited Jobs and his family at home, who, unlike Isaacson, had been a first-hand witness to many of the major events, both public and private, in Jobs’s later life — and one who knew Jobs intimately enough to have some personal understanding of him as a human being. The book, as told by the lightly fictionalized Schendler-narrator, is as much an intimate memoir as it is a biography, a memoir that attempts to characterize and explain the inner life of the man he knew.
And, just as with Isaacson’s project, Schlender and Tetzeli’s project, for the most part, succeeds.
There Can Be More Than One -- If there is a war for who Steve Jobs was, perhaps we need to call an armistice. Both books have their unique virtues as well as shortcomings.
The Isaacson book remains essential reading for anyone who wants a rich compendium of well-researched and annotated details about Steve Jobs, his life and times, and his own late reflections on it. It may not be a perfect book, but it’s an honest one and a good place to start.
For a deeply felt account, albeit in some ways speculative, of the qualities that earned Jobs the abiding respect and love of his closest associates, an account cast (quite deliberately, in fact) as a variation of the Hero’s Journey, the Schlender and Tetzeli book is the best that’s currently available. It shouldn’t be surprising that this is the story Apple and Jobs’s intimates wish to promote.
(The archetypal hero myth, by the way, is not just a conceit on the part of Schlender and Tetzeli; Isaacson also recognizes how curiously well Jobs’s life conforms to its structure: check out his allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry V in his book’s introductory chapter.)
In any case, the Matter of Jobs can encompass both of these books and more. I’m sure that neither volume completely captures the One True Jobs: he was, like all of us, more complicated, and with many more dimensions, than any one tale can tell.
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” —from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”