Few nonfiction writers think bigger than Walter Isaacson, who has taken on subjects like Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. But when Apple founder Steve Jobs invited him in 2004 to write a complete and frank biography, Isaacson held back.
He figured Jobs was in midcareer, so a book was premature. He had finished with Franklin the year before and was still grappling with Einstein.
"My initial reaction," Isaacson says in "Steve Jobs," the biography he began five years later, "was to wonder, half-jokingly, whether he saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence."
In 2009, Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell, told Isaacson that her husband was losing his then-six-year battle with liver cancer. "If you're ever going to do a book on Steve," she said, "you'd better do it now." Isaacson agreed. It turned out that Jobs, a canny judge of all sorts of talent, thought he was the man for the job because he would be "good at getting people to talk."
The result became last year's best-selling nonfiction book and the prime source for all the articles, TV shows and other books about Jobs that streamed into the culture after his death last year on Oct. 5. On Saturday, April 14, Isaacson will talk about Jobs at the ninth annual CityLit Festival at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library's Wheeler Auditorium.
In a career that has included editing Time magazine and serving as chairman and chief executive officer of CNN, Isaacson has grown used to leveling a steady and discerning gaze at culture heroes and world leaders alike.
"The joy of being a writer is the opportunity to learn things," he says from the D.C. office where he heads the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit for nonpartisan educational and policy studies. "I think technology and science are beautiful, and I think we shouldn't be intimidated by them."
That's what excited him about Jobs, a lover of beauty in the liberal arts and electronics.
Isaacson is a New Orleans native who served as vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which was created in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He had been researching Big Easy jazz legend Louis Armstrong when Powell called. He gave up on the trumpeter as a subject when he couldn't figure out what lay behind Satchmo's iconic toothy grin. He does get behind Steve Jobs' penetrating stare — and that's quite an achievement.
There is one blatant hole. Isaacson says in a follow-up email, "I didn't get him to talk about China" and the forbidding conditions in which Apple products are produced there. (Near the end of the book, Jobs does urge President Barack Obama to sponsor new training programs for American engineers, saying he employs 700,000 Chinese factory workers because only China can supply the 30,000 engineers he needs to supervise them.)
Otherwise, Isaacson is upfront about Jobs' failings. As a young man, Jobs could be recklessly cruel. His parents were both 23 when they had Jobs and gave him up for adoption — an event that vexed and haunted him. But when he and his on-and-off lover, Chrisann Brennan, had their daughter Lisa — also at age 23 — Jobs denied paternity for over a year. He ignored his daughter through most of her childhood. Jobs' explanation — "I could not see myself as a father then, so I didn't face up to it" — seems to be about as self-aware as he ever got.
Jobs comes off as a visionary who was also an unpredictable colleague and mercurial taskmaster. He dismissed brilliant ideas, such as permitting non-Apple apps on iPhones, as abruptly as bad ones — until he envisioned them in their perfected state. He loved Zen simplicity; it influenced Apple's aesthetic. He also adopted crackpot cultish beliefs, like his long-held faith that a fruity diet would prevent mucus buildup and body odor (without showering).
He operated like a quasi-cult leader, convincing teams that they could pull off improbable feats simply because he expected it of them. And he was vindictive. Because he thought Google poached on iPhone to create its Android, he told Isaacson, "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go to thermonuclear war on this."
Isaacson suggests that Jobs' fire-alarm reflexes are part of what enabled him to revolutionize computing and bring consumers into an integrated digital world.
"And you have to judge him by the outcome," Isaacson says, noting that Jobs closed his life "with a loving family and colleagues. Even though Steve could be rough, he was incredibly inspiring, very charismatic and as charming as he was brusque."
Isaacson's Jobs operates like a theatrical director/impresario — with a volatile temperament and, more important, a genius for uniting form and content. He's prone to tears as well as fury, especially after marketing specialist John Scully takes over Apple.
Jobs leaves, creates a succes d'estime with NeXT computers, then puts Pixar on track for its astonishing digital cartoon features. When he returns to Apple and revitalizes it with breakout products, including the iMac and the iPad, he's still a zealot, but a seasoned one.
Isaacson calls the biography "a bildungsroman," referring to novels that trace a hero's spiritual and psychological growth.
"He does deepen and mature in the book, but he doesn't lose his essential character. ... People who read only the first half think he's a jerk. People who keep reading see him focus his intensity and deal with it." Most readers tell him "they start out not liking him, but by the end they're crying."
Jobs and his nearest rival, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, had a three-hour heart-to-heart in 2011. Jobs said, "We were like the old guys in the industry looking back."
But the enemies-reconciled scenario didn't work out. Gates later told Isaacson that Apple's' "end-to-end" designs, meshing hardware and software, may not "win many rounds in the future" without Jobs' leadership. Jobs told Isaacson that Microsoft's philosophy of creating software for use with many companies' hardware led to "crappy products."
In the course of over 40 interviews, Isaacson's access to Jobs affected his biographical stance.
"As he got more ill," Isaacson says, "he got more emotional. I found myself emotionally compelled by him. It was more complicated than just liking him."
Isaacson says he believed it when Jobs told him "he wasn't going to die; he was going to beat the cancer." Jobs could be that mesmerizing.
Near the end, "It became very draining; I no longer felt like a journalist keeping his distance but like someone who was intimately involved with a guy who might be dying."
Jobs was so persuasive that "to the very end, I kept thinking he's going to beat it." Isaacson braced for the day when Jobs "would read the book — and berate me."
Isaacson wanted to close "Steve Jobs" with a bold stroke — "Something both symbolic and real."
"In a normal biography, you want the biographer to have the last word," he said. "But the last four or five pages of this book are just Steve talking. This extraordinary person gave me an enormous number of interviews. My ego is not big enough to think what I would have said at that point was more interesting than getting Steve's story out."
And he does. The book brings you so close to Jobs, you know he means it when he says, in this climactic "Legacy" section, "That's what I've always tried to do — keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you're not busy being born, you're busy dying."
If you go
Walter Isaacson will speak at the ninth annual CityLit Festival in the Wheeler Auditorium of the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St., at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 14. Baltimore Sun technology reporter Gus Sentementes will introduce Isaacson. Free. For a full schedule, go to citylitproject.org.