The conflicting biographies of Steve Jobs, one authorized by its subject prior to his death, the other endorsed by Apple, paint quite different pictures of the man. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs focuses more on his flaws, while Becoming Steve Jobs describes a softer, more rounded person.
A tech journalist who knew Steve well, Steven Levy, has weighed in with his own take in an interesting blog post, The War Over Who Steve Jobs Was. He said that one quote from Becoming Steve Jobs summed-up the view presented by Schlender and Tetzeli.
He could be a jerk, but never an asshole.
Levy says that many of those close to Steve shared the view expressed by Tim Cook on Isaacson’s biography, published soon after Steve’s death, that it did a “tremendous disservice” to him. Jony Ive said that his own regard for the book “couldn’t be any lower” …
While Isaacson’s biography did describe Steve’s achievements, many felt it conveyed a negative impression of the man himself, focusing too much on his younger days and not enough on the more mature person he became.
Privately, those closest to Jobs complained that Isaacson’s portrait focused too heavily on the Apple CEO’s worst behavior, and failed to present a 360-degree view of the person they knew. Though the book Steve Jobs gave copious evidence of its subject’s talent and achievements, millions of readers finished the book believing that he could be described with a word that rhymes with “gas hole.”
It was this, thinks Levy, that eventually persuaded Apple to lend its support to Becoming Steve Jobs, the interviews with Cook, Katie Cotton and others “seemingly granted to get the record straight.” The quotes very much reflect this desire, he argues.
Judging from the quotes from the interviews its members gave the authors, they very much had the Isaacson book in mind when offering up anecdotes about Jobs.
Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, also interviewed for the book, said he hoped the latest biography “will be recognized as the definitive history.”
Levy himself is less critical of Isaacson’s work.
In my view, Cook’s dismissal of Isaacson’s book as just a sloppy rehash is somewhat over the top. I came to Isaacson’s book with a lot of knowledge about Steve Jobs, yet I learned many new details from over 40 interviews Jobs gave to Isaacson, as well from some interviews Isaacson won because Jobs prevailed on people to cooperate with the book. No matter what one thinks of Isaacson’s book, it is absolutely permeated, as is appropriate, with the voice of its subject.
Levy also observes that there was no getting around the less appealing aspects of Steve’s personality and behavior, and that Becoming Steve Jobs devotes a full chapter – titled Blind Spots, Grudges and Sharp Elbows – to addressing these. He notes that while Steve made fun of others, he also made fun of his own demanding nature.
I once asked the Beatle-loving Jobs if his dream was to have Paul McCartney perform one of those two-song sets that often closed his product launch events. “No,” he told me. “My dream is to have John Lennon perform.”
Both books play their part, in Levy’s view, though “only in Becoming Steve Jobs do I recognize the complexity and warmth that I saw first-hand in Jobs, particularly in the last few years of his life.”