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The book of Jobs

Sometimes books are cursed as early as they are conceived. The weight of expectations makes them heavy. Steve Jobs by William Isaacson has that as its birthmark.

books Updated: Oct 28, 2011 23:52 IST
Swapan Seth
Swapan Seth

Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson
Hachette India
Rs 799
PP 656

Sometimes books are cursed as early as they are conceived. The weight of expectations makes them heavy. Steve Jobs by William Isaacson has that as its birthmark.

And when the man writing it has, in the past, written the biographies of both Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, the expectations expand exponentially. Then, for a moment, consider the subject. A man who influenced not one business, but many: computing, design, music, movies, telephony and retail. Not many in history have distributed greatness so generously across business geographies.

Early on in the book, Isaacson talks about how Jobs was "abandoned" by his genetic parents and "chosen" by Clara and Paul Jobs. That to me formed the plinth of both the character and its chronicle. Jobs created a lifetime and career out of abandoning and choosing people, processes and purposes. The coldheartedness with which he did this was both genetic and adopted.

There is little that the book says that is shiningly new to people who have spent their living hours snacking on Steve trivia. So even while Isaacson did a grand job of the task at hand, the question is what was the task of the book? To present a flawed and fragile Jobs? To showcase a killer app of eccentricities? To embalm a rare genius who found inspiration for product design from seeing a cow give birth? Or listen to a flawed recording of 'Strawberry Fields Forever'? Or housing created by Joseph Eichler? Or to merely reinforce one of life's most telling truths: that the most furiously functional are deeply dysfunctional? The book does have its 'awww...' moments.

The time when Paul Jobs is out of work and an upset Steve asks his teacher why his father had to be broke. Or when he really wanted Yo Yo Ma to play at his funeral. Or the chilling yet telling fact that he knew very early on in life that he was going to die young. Even that bit where he yanks off the surgical mask in the hospital purely because he hated the design.

The book is also invigoratingly inspirational. The parts that describe Jobs standing at the "intersection of humanities and science" are heroic. Biographies have the tendency to be laborious and tenuous. Isaacson's style is gentle and gracious.

Good books pose different questions to different people. They provide different answers to different people. Some questions continue to remain unanswered in my mind. Why the book? Why now? Why for his children? Why would he want to change the way the world saw him by actually allowing someone to present him the way he was? Why would anyone want a fairytale to end with "he lived unhappily before"? Why a book that would be his funeral march? And why leave the kids with any other impression than the fact that their father was the most charismatic conductor of technology of both the times and the timeless? The book evades those answers.

But across its pages it drops, Iago-like, careful little kerchiefs worthy of consideration. I sense in each of these answers lay the detachment of Jobs.

He had "abandoned" the earth and had "chosen" to die. He no longer cared what the world thought about him. He was no longer worried about how the kids would see him. He was on to the next best thing: Heaven.

In the book he says, his favourite character in literature was King Lear. In Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, the noted Shakespearean scholar, William Hazlitt, had this to say about King Lear: "The character of Lear itself is very finely conceived for the purpose. It is the only ground on which such a story could be built with the greatest truth and effect. It is his rash haste, his violent impetuosity, his blindness to everything but the dictates of his passions or affections, that produces all his misfortunes, that aggravates his impatience of them, that enforces our pity for him... The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual; the explosions of his passions are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that rich sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare." Once again, Jobs had chosen well.

Swapan Seth is CEO, Equus and author of This Is All I Have To Say

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First Published: Oct 28, 2011 23:49 IST