Review of iCon - Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon    

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When publisher Wiley announced they would be bringing out this unauthorised biography of Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, Jobs responded by pulling all Wiley books from the shelves of his company's Apple Stores. The resulting publicity probably did wonders for the book's sales, but I suspect it also led Wiley to bring forward the publication date so that they could cash in on subsequent media attention. The result is an insanely mediocre book, one which feels rushed and at times confused.

Steve Jobs is a famously private person, unhappy about being the subject of any biography. But the main source of Apple's ire is rumoured to be the double-entendre of the book's title: do Young & Simon really mean that Jobs is an icon, or are they implying that he's a con man? Judging by the contents of the book, a little of both. (There's even a third meaning, a tip of the hat to the man who, with the first Apple Mac, brought icons to the computer desktop). At first the title seems like a witty piece of word-play, but as I got deeper into the book it struck me as just one more example of the authors' inability to express clearly what they wished to say. This ineptitude extends to the sub-title: "The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business" is a knowing dig at F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not knowing enough though. This book's three-part structure ("Flowering and Withering", "New Beginnings" and "Defining the Future") only serves to highlight the fact that Steve Jobs has the greatest third act in the history of business.

This may seem like nit-picking, but Young & Simon's inability to invent a coherent title is merely the summit of a mountain of bad writing, non-sequiturs and niggling errors which occur throughout the book. There are frequent cockamamie sentences like "this would turn out to be a brilliant decision, but not for a reason nobody would have guessed at the time", linguistic redundancies like "a Jolly Roger pirate flag, complete with skull and crossbones" or "the Mac's one Achilles Heel", talk of deals that are "anteed up" and payments that are "ponied up". At the beginning of 2005, Jobs is rather insensitively described as creating "a word of mouth tsunami". Stilted, clumsy anecdotes are built up and then left hanging in the air, waiting for a punch-line that never arrives. Quotes and quips which the authors couldn't find a suitable place for are shoehorned in regardless.

As the book opens, we are definitely in Icon territory: the prologue is gushing in its praise of the man. At the MacWorld Expo in January 2000, Steve is preaching to his disciples, but as well as being genius, visionary, inspirational, super-human, there is a new side to Steve's character: he has learned to be self-deprecating, to learn from his mistakes, to accept that it is even possible for Steve Jobs to make mistakes. As we slip further back into Apple's ancient history, we see a lot less of the "Icon" and a lot more of the "I Con" when Steve promises non-existent rewards to his minions, or heaps personal abuse on anyone who fails to meet his high and sometimes unrealistic standards. For most of the book he comes across as a manipulating, lying, mean, ruthless, greedy, tenacious individual with an "essential lack of humanity" who lays claim to all his victories and blames others for his failures. That he manages to discover a little bit of humanity in time for his 45th birthday is clearly seen by the authors as a big deal.

Despite being insipid, the book is not boring. On the road from teenage electronics nerd to CEO of a resurgent Apple and a Disney-slaying Pixar, there are plenty of fascinating stories. Steve Jobs dates film stars, bullies a King into buying a computer, phases job interviewees with the questions "how many times have you taken acid?" and "when did you lose your virginity?", believes his fruitarian diet makes him immune to body odour (his co-workers disagree in the strongest terms), frightens Apple employees into using the stairs (to avoid the risk of meeting Jobs in the elevator), and is threatened with a shotgun to the balls by Jeffrey Katzenberg for daring to encroach on Disney's patch. Life as Steve Jobs is, it seems, rarely dull.

The book's blurb claims that the story of Steve's triumphant return to Apple is "better than any fiction". The story is, but this telling certainly isn't. At one point the authors tell us that Steve's sister Mona has written a "literary novel", explaining that this is "a not really snide term for a book that doesn't deal with spies, serial killers, natural disasters or the like, but succeeds because of the quality of the writing". If Young & Simon's book succeeds, you can be sure it won't be because of the quality of the writing.

© Dan Sumption, June 2005

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