Biographer Vs. The Reality Distortion Field

With the arrival yesterday of Walter Isaacson’s hotly awaited bio of the late Steve Jobs, we enter a new round of Jobs-ophilia as bloggers and reviewers cherry-pick the revealing and provocative tidbits from this large bio. Courtesy of technologies, distribution and business models Jobs championed, the pre-ordered book downloaded to my iPad nook app very early Monday morning as I was making my way to OMMA Mobile by air. I only got to read a fraction of the story so far, pretty much up to the first work, with Apple’s invention. Incomplete as my impressions are, I have read enough history, biography and seriously in-depth combinations of both to get a sense that Isaacson himself was battling against the charm and infamous reality distortion field of his subject, regardless the hundred of other interviews he has reminded us constantly he did for the book.

Of course it bears remembering that biography is interpretation. Isaacson didn’t just have to chronicle Jobs’ life, he had to give it some shape and meaning. As is the tendency in most biography in the modern and post-modern eras, childhood figures large in Isaacson’s version. Early feelings of abandonment in the adopted Jobs were paired with contrasting convictions of his specialness. Isaacson establishes this tension in his subject’s volatile personality early in the book, and I expect it will reverberate throughout.

The more creative tension established early in the book is between humanities and technology -- the nexus at which Jobs imagined himself and where Isaacson appears to place his and Apple’s central contribution to  21st century culture. Through simplicity and an obsessive devotion to the meaning of design, Jobs helped make technology matter less than what people did with it.

Although Isaacson is quick to remind us how vicious and prickly Jobs could be, you also get the sense that the biographer is on the edge of falling for his subject. Jobs himself is quoted at great length and without much rebuttal in crafting his vision of his own childhood.

The moments of great inspiration are pretty much defined by Jobs, and the first hundred pages of the book feels a lot like it could have used more sources and a closer examination of what Jobs left out. Isaacson’s frequent recounting of their taped walking interviews puts Jobs’ voice always in the narrative. 

For those who admire and want to memorialize the late great innovator, that will be for the good. It has its down sides, namely that it is unclear who is running the show here, Jobs or his biographer. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the book for me so far is just that creative tension -- between the Jobs that Jobs built in his own head and a biographer who is trying to find his way in and around the famous reality distortion field.

Video interviews with Isaacson are now online. One from his own Aspen Institute was conducted by GenConnect.

The other is the “60 Minutes” episode that ran this past Sunday, and Web-only supporting materials.


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