The H-Word

Emma-Kate Symons goes full Apple-is-a-religious-cult in a piece for Quartz, “The Canonization of St. Steve of Cupertino”:

Take a new authorized hagiography of the late Apple founder, out today, with the propagandistic title of Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader.

In this unabashedly flattering account, written with the overenthusiastic participation of Apple’s senior executives and staff, Cook tries a little too hard to rescue and reframe the partially tarred image of his former boss. The man was not “a greedy, selfish and egomaniac [sic],” he says adamantly, and only yelled at him, you know, about four or five times in his life.

There’s a lot to unpack in just these two paragraphs. For one thing, I don’t think Symons has actually read the book — (a) the book only came out yesterday, so unless she obtained an advance copy, she wrote her piece for Quartz having read only the published excerpts; and (b) even judging by the excerpts, I don’t see how anyone could call Becoming Steve Jobs “unabashedly flattering”.

Her screed comes across not as criticism of the book but as a cry for people to stop talking about Apple. “Please Stop Writing About How Successful Apple Is and How Great Steve Jobs Was, I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore and There’s Something Weird About Anyone Who Does” would have been a better headline.

Even her use of “authorized” is curious. Authors Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli did obtain on-the-record interviews from current and former Apple executives, as well as Jobs’s wife. But that’s cooperation, not authorization. They were writing the book with or without Apple’s (or Laurene Powell Jobs’s) participation. If any book on Steve Jobs was “authorized”, it’s Walter Isaacson’s. Nor do I get Symons’s description of the book’s title as “propagandistic”. Love him or hate him, what reasonable person would disagree that Steve Jobs was a “visionary leader”?

But I’ll focus on hagiography. It’s perfectly reasonable to approach Becoming Steve Jobs with skepticism. Something along the lines of, “If Apple executives like Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, and Jony Ive cooperated with the authors, and are simultaneously expressing their displeasure with Isaacson’s 2011 book, that makes me suspect this new book is a whitewashing.

Such skepticism is healthy. But I believe anyone who actually reads Becoming Steve Jobs with an open mind will be disabused of such concerns quickly. The book covers Steve Jobs’s failings unwaveringly, both the personal (e.g., regarding his denial of paternity of his first daughter, Lisa) and professional.

It’s possible that Apple cooperated with Becoming Steve Jobs with the intention of producing — or at least steering the project towards — a hagiography. It’s also possible they cooperated only with the intention of getting an accurate, truthful account of Jobs’s life and career on the record, and that Schlender and Tetzeli earned their trust.

The fundamental problem with Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is not that the book is “negative”, or that it paints Jobs in an unflattering light. The problem with Isaacson’s book is that Isaacson didn’t understand Jobs’s work. He was granted unprecedented access to Jobs himself in his final years and he blew it. Jobs picked the wrong guy.

I covered the Isaacson book’s many shortcomings in detail back in 2012, and re-reading my critique today, it all stands. But none of my complaints were about whether the book was flattering or unflattering. My complaints were about glaring, blatant inaccuracies (e.g. this quote from Bill Gates, which Isaacson presented as factually true: “Amelio paid a lot for NeXT, and let’s be frank, the NeXT OS was never really used.”) and omissions. Isaacson barely covered the NeXT years, and almost completely ignored Jobs’s interest in software.

Becoming Steve Jobs is an outstanding book that fully stands on its own, not just as a response to Isaacson’s. As time goes on, it should stand as the definitive Jobs biography. Not because it paints him flatteringly, but because it paints him accurately — for better and for worse. The cooperation of those who were close to Jobs only served to make the book better. Schlender and Tetzeli did not set out to praise (or condemn) Jobs. They set out only to capture him, and they succeeded.