TIME Executives

Why It Matters Who Steve Jobs Really Was

Apple Unveils iPad 2
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple Special event to unveil the new iPad 2 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 2, 2011 in San Francisco.

Dueling biographies fight over the story of Steve

In 2011 Walter Isaacson published a biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s biography was fully authorized by its subject: Jobs handpicked Isaacson, who had written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Entitled simply Steve Jobs, the book was well-reviewed and sold some 3 million copies.

But now its account is being challenged by another book, this one called Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender, a veteran technology journalist who was friendly with Jobs, and Rick Tetzeli, executive editor at Fast Company. Some of Jobs’ former colleagues and friends have taken sides, speaking out against the old book and praising the new one. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO and Jobs’s successor, has said that Isaacson’s book depicts Jobs as “a greedy, selfish egomaniac.” Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief, has weighed in against it, and Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president of software and Internet services, tweeted about the new book: “Well done and first to get it right.”

But who did get it right? And why do people care so much anyway?

(This article comes with a bouquet of disclosures, starting with the fact that Isaacson is a current contributor and former editor of TIME magazine and as such my former boss. I’m quoted in his biography—I interviewed Jobs half a dozen times in the mid-2000s, though he and I weren’t friendly. Schlender spent more than 20 years writing for Fortune, which is owned by TIME’s parent company, Time Inc., and Tetzeli was an editor both at Fortune and at Entertainment Weekly, also a Time Inc. magazine.)

Schlender and Tetzeli have given their book the subtitle “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” and its emphasis is on the transformation that Jobs underwent between 1985, when he was ousted from Apple, and 1997, when he returned to it. “The most basic question about Steve’s career is this,” they write. “How could the man who had been such an inconsistent, inconsiderate, rash, and wrongheaded businessman … become the venerated CEO who revived Apple and created a whole new set of culture-defining products?” It’s an excellent question.

Becoming Steve Jobs is, like most books about Jobs, tough on his early years. He could be a callous person (he initially denied being the father of his first child) and a terrible manager (the original Macintosh, while magnificent in its conception, was only barely viable as a product). On this score Schlender and Tetzeli are clear and even-handed. It’s easy to forget that Jobs originally wanted Pixar, the animation firm he took over from George Lucas in 1986, to focus on selling its graphics technology rather than making movies, and if the geniuses there hadn’t been more independent he might have run it into the ground.

Schlender and Tetzeli argue that it was this middle period that made Jobs. The failure of his first post-Apple company, NeXT, chastened him; his work with Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter taught him patience and management skills; and his marriage to Laurene Powell Jobs deepened him emotionally. In those wilderness years he learned discipline and (some) humility and how to iterate and improve a project gradually. Thus reforged, he returned to Apple and led it back from near bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world.

Schlender and Tetzeli strenuously insist that they’re upending the “common myths” about Jobs. But they’re not specific about who exactly believes these myths, and in fact it’s a bit of a straw man: there’s not much in Becoming Steve Jobs that Isaacson or anybody else would disagree with. What’s missing is more problematic: as it goes on, Becoming Steve Jobs gradually abandons its critical distance and becomes a paean to the greatness of Jobs and Apple. Jobs was “someone who preferred creating machines that delighted real people,” and his reborn Apple was “a company that could once again make insanely great computing machines for you and me.” It reprints the famous “Think Different” spiel in full. It compares Jobs’ career arc, without irony, to that of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. It unspools sentences like: “Steve [we’re on a first-name basis with him] also understood that the personal satisfaction of accomplishing something insanely great was the best motivation of all for a group as talented as his.”

Read More: Apple’s Watch Will Make People and Computers More Intimate

It’s easy to see why Apple executives have endorsed Becoming Steve Jobs, but it has imperfections that would have irked Jobs himself. The writing is slack—it’s larded with clichés (“he wanted to play their game, but by his own rules”) and marred by small infelicities (it confuses jibe and gibe, twice). It lacks detail: for example, it covers Jobs’ courtship of and marriage to Laurene in two dry pages (“Their relationship burned intensely from the beginning, as you might expect from the pairing of two such strong-willed individuals”). By contrast, a Fortune interview Schlender did with Jobs and Bill Gates in 1991 gets 13 pages. Whatever its faults, Isaacson’s book at least dug up the telling details: in his account of the marriage we learn that Jobs was still agonizing over an ex-girlfriend; that he had a hilariously abortive bachelor party; that he threw out the calligrapher who was hired to do the wedding invitations (“I can’t look at her stuff. It’s shit”); and that the vegan wedding cake was borderline inedible.

Jobs was famously unintrospective, but Schlender and Tetzeli seem almost as incurious about his inner life as he supposedly was. Jobs’ birth parents were 23 when they conceived him, then they gave him up for adoption; when he was 23 Jobs abandoned his own first child. It takes a determinedly uninterested biographer not to connect those dots, or at least explain why they shouldn’t be connected. We hear a lot about what Jobs did, and some about how he did it, but very little about why.

Jobs was a man of towering contradictions: he identified deeply with the counterculture but spent his life in corporate boardrooms amassing billions; he made beautiful products that ostensibly enabled individual creativity but in their architecture expressed a deep-seated need for central control. Maybe making educated guesses about a major figure’s private life is unseemly, or quixotic, but that’s the game a biographer is in. Ultimately there’s no point in comparing Steve Jobs and Becoming Steve Jobs, because the latter book isn’t really a biography at all, much less a definitive one.

A more interesting question might be, why has the story of Steve Jobs become so important to us? And why is it such contested territory? He’s also the subject of a scathing new documentary by Alex Gibney and an upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin. Was Jobs, to use Schlender and Tetzeli’s terminology, an asshole, or a genius, or some mysterious fusion of the two? It’s as if Jobs’ life has become a kind of totem, a symbolic story through which we’re trying to understand and work through our own ambivalence about the technology he and his colleagues made, which has so thoroughly invaded and transformed our lives in the past 20 years, for good and/or ill. Apple’s products are so glossy and beautiful and impenetrable that it’s difficult to do anything but admire them. But about Jobs, at least, we can think ­different.

Read next: Becoming Steve Jobs Shares Jobs’ Human Side

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Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Will Realign the Literary Universe

Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Nov. 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla—2007 Getty Images Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Nov. 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.

Expect Harper Lee's unexpected new book to forever change the way we read To Kill a Mockingbird

Today, to the delight and total consternation of the literary world, HarperCollins announced that it will publish a previously unknown novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The new novel is called Go Set a Watchman, and it deals with the adult life of “Scout” Finch, whom we met Mockingbird as a six-year-old.

When Go Set a Watchman appears in July it will—in subtle but very real ways—realign the literary universe. Among the many things that made Mockingbird special was its singularity: after its release in 1960 Lee never published another book. She’s not the only great one-novel novelist—there’s also Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind)—but they’re increasingly rare birds in an age when writers feel obliged to lash themselves to produce the maximum possible verbiage, over the longest possible career, at any cost.

But to clarify, this isn’t Lee’s second novel—it’s her first. She wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman is about Scout going back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father, Atticus. At the time the editor she showed it to was more interested in Scout’s memories of her childhood, and suggested Lee write an entire novel just about that. Needless to say she did.

Now the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman has been rediscovered by a friend of Lee’s and will be published in July, unchanged. “After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust,” Lee said in a press release, “and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” (Some doubt has been cast on whether Lee—who at 88 has had some health problems and resides in an assisted living facility—is entirely competent to approve the book’s publication; it’s been pointed out that this announcement comes shortly after Lee’s sister and attorney Alice, who often guided her professional interests, passed away in November. But if there’s anything opportunistic or untoward in the book’s publication, so far it’s in the realm of speculation only.)

It’s hard to think of a precedent in literary history, though there are parallels—for example, the estate of JD Salinger (another one-novel novelist) will in coming years posthumously publish stories dealing with his most famous characters, Holden Caulfield and the Glass family.

It’s anybody’s guess whether Watchman is another masterpiece, but whatever happens it will irreversibly change the way we read To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is one of the great good fathers of American literature, and his relationship with Scout has been a platonic ideal and a template for any number of parents and children. Is Scout now coming back to Maycomb to resolve some lingering, unresolved, previously unknown conflict with him? From now on Mockingbird won’t just be the story of Scout’s childhood, it will be the answer to a question that we never knew had been asked: how did the hero of Go Set a Watchman become the woman that she is?

One mystery that Watchman won’t solve is why Lee never wrote again. That her warm, generous, instantly familiar voice fell silent is one of the enduring enigmas of literary history, and most likely will remain that way. But Watchman will at least tell us whether Lee’s voice was already there, before she wrote Mockingbird, or whether that particular voice arrived to tell that particular story.

As to why it vanished, we may only ever know what Lee said in one of her very few public appearances, when she accepted the Alabama Medal of Freedom in 2001: “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”

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