With his uncensored access to Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson creates an angular portrait of a complex man, says Devangshu Datta
THIS BOOK weighs about four times as much as the 600g iPad2, the last product launched by its subject. In return for the biceps workout, one wants serious insight. Walter Isaacson delivers — both deep background and analysis.
He had unbridled, uncensored access to Steve Jobs and also interviewed hundreds of others. The life and death of Jobs is narrated in detail, complete with emotional context and expletives. The when, where, why and how of adoption, childhood, Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again, is all there.
Quite often, the same incidents are narrated from the points of view of several principal actors, using the faction techniques pioneered by Capote. Even when the events in question are wellknown, Isaacson has some new nug gets of information or context.
What emerges is a slightly angular portrait of a very complex man who lived in technicolour. Jobs’ unique vision of how things work at “the intersection of humanity and technology” helped him to midwife and mould digital consumer electronics.
Those who dealt with him, worked for him and fought with him, repeatedly told Isaacson that he distorted reality through his sheer mesmeric passion. He motivated teams to keep impossible deadlines. He talked financiers into backing daydreams.
He also had epic mood swings and tantrums. As the book relates, Jobs often burst into tears, even during delicate negotiations. He was consistently rude to everybody, from waitresses to heads of states.
Everything was either “insanely great” or “shit”. His subordinates learnt to interpret when “This is shit!” translated into “Tell me why this works?” and when it meant the kiss of death. They also learnt that, if he liked an idea, it became ‘his’ idea.
At least once, he cheated his closest associate, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. When Apple went public, he refused to offer stock to another old associate, Danny Kottke. The flip side was that he was also capable of whimsical generosity.
The habits were equally unusual. Jobs often bathed once a week and experimented with bizarre diets and purges. His trust in alternative medicine may have hastened his death. He dropped out of college, dropped acid, smoked dope and backpacked acr oss India. He owned more than a 100 black turtlenecks and drove cars without number- plates (leg ally, using a loophole in California law). He lived in unfurnished mansions when he couldn’t find perfect furniture.
The mother of the daughter he originally refused to acknowledge described him as “evolved but cruel”. His wife, four children, and several ex-girlfriends, including Joan Baez, endured phases of emotional “disapparation”. Even fatal illness didn’t mellow him much.
Isaacson speculates about issues arising from abandonment and adoption. Oddly, Jobs inspired love or at least liking, even in some of whom he treated badly. A poignant anecdote is the last meeting with old ‘frenemy’ Bill Gates, who made a condolence call when Jobs was on his deathbed.
Jobs once asked Isaacson apropos the book, “I guess there’s lots of stuff I won’t like?” Nevertheless he had the courage and honesty to give free rein to his biographer. The result is an astonishing story of a strange, insanely gifted, and insanely flawed man.
Another Gold Medal
Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography is one of the finest sports books ever in India, says Suresh Menon
CHAMPIONS, to adapt a well-known line from F Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me. For one, they are obsessed, for another, they inhabit a universe that is closed to mere earthlings. But even in such a universe, Abhinav Bindra, India’s sole individual gold winner at the Olympics, stands out. In Rohit Brijnath, he has found the wri ter with the gift of putting into words con – cepts that sportsmen seldom articulate.
The result is a riveting book that is phi losophical in its import, combining the inspiring tale of a single sportsman with a single focus and the cautionary tale of India’s officialdom where apathy and active sabotage are the guiding lights. “I am not by any stretch of imagination a natural shooter,” says Bindra who, at the age of 13, shot 600 out of 600, a wo rld record (but not ratified by the world body because it came in a tournament not recognised by it). Then there is his short-sightedness. Bindra’s coach in Europe once said, “I never saw a shooter with such bad eyes.”
The hurdles Bindra had to overcome — personal, professional, administrative — meant that the one advantage he had, family wealth, became a dire necessity. Shoo ting is an expensive sport, and when officialdom fails to recognise champions in its midst, it can get prohibitive. Of course, it could have worked against the youngster too since there was no pressure to perform well.
Bindra was educated in the ways of officialdom early. In 1996, he shot a perfect 400 at a tournament but officials refused to accept it (the score was cons i dered impossible). “Their mind,” says Bindra, “could not comprehend what the eyes had seen.” They refused to ratify the result and gave the gold to the second-placed shooter! When officials sent him his shoes before the Beijing Olympics, the left shoe was size 11 and the right size 8. “It’s not fine,” says Bin – dra, “just hilarious.” He speaks of his disappointments with clinical honesty. Sud denly, it is possible to understand why he looked so unemotional when he won the gold at Beijing. The book is the story of two journeys — one physical, to championships and training around the world, and the other internal, thro ugh self-doubt, self-awareness and a Zenlike acceptance of things as they are.
The details of the training schedules are not for the weak-stomached. The intensity, the sacrifices, the passion that make for greatness are laid out almost conversationally. And then the huge letdown following the gold. Bindra had achieved his life’s ambition at 25. Everything was bound to be downhill now.
A Shot At History is one of the finest books on sports published in India. As much for its honesty and its unselfconscious guided tour into the mind of a champion as for its manner of painting the large picture through a series of personal experiences. Read it if you love sport. Read it even if you don’t.
Hafeez Contractor, Architect
Is there a book that means a lot to you?
Reading about other architects interests me as it gives me an insight into the history of architecture at different points in time. I have read a lot of the famous French architect Le Corbusier. He has written around 18 volumes on design and architecture. He wrote about what he did as an architect and how he did it. I have read most of them in major chunks.
Do you relate to any fictional character?
I stopped reading fiction a long time ago. So many people kept asking me about Ayn Rand and Howard Roark that I decided never to read The Fountainhead. Writings like Le Corbusier’s are far more important to me than fairytales.
How many books do you own?
I own more than 5,000 books, but I haven’t gone through all of them. I read a little from different books at different times, but I never complete one. That’s the way I read. I see a lot and I read a little. That’s my way of looking at things.
Which is the last book you read?
Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. I left it some 10 days ago, but I’m going to pick it up again. It’s an extremely interesting and informative book. Though he writes about America, he tells us about history, economics and the world and India, and about the future, too. It helps me in my profession as it prepares me for what I’m going to be.
Aradhna Wal is Features Trainee with Tehelka.