Steve Jobs: Insanely Great (Penguin Random House)

Jessie Hartland offers up a breezy primer on the man behind the Apple.



224 pgs., B&W; $22.95
(W / A: Jessie Hartland)
I’m typing this review on a MacBook Pro, and I own two other Macs as well as an iPad. My husband can account for a few more Mac products in our household, and much of our television viewing is done through an Apple TV box. So even though I don’t think of myself as being particularly interested in the latest and greatest technology (I still use a flip phone), I regularly interact with a whole slew of products that might not exist were it not for Steve Jobs, the subject of Jessie Hartland’s new graphic biography.
Steve Jobs: Insanely Great takes a chronological approach to Jobs’ life, from his birth and adoption in 1955 to his death from pancreatic cancer in 2011. Hartland takes care to place the events of Jobs’ life in context—for instance, that he grew up in the Santa Clara Valley at a time when it was “a busy buzzing place with hundreds of technology companies employing thousands of people,” flush with federal research dollars as America rushed to keep up with the Russians in the space race, and also a place where “companies that started out small inside home garages, like nearby Hewlett-Packard, are becoming giant.” Jobs may have been a unique genius, in other words, but he was also born at the right time and place to find a useful outlet for his particular talents and inclinations.
Hartland also provides the kind of information that will help the born digital generation imagine life back when Jobs was tinkering in his garage—phones had rotary dials, music came from phonograph records and radios, cameras used film, knowledge was stored in paper-and-ink books, and official documents were produced on typewriters.
Anyone familiar with the basic outline of Jobs’ life will find that they know most or all of the information in Steve Jobs, but it’s efficiently and charmingly presented, and will provide a good overview for people who haven’t read much about Jobs before. It’s readable by both children and adults, assuming that neither will be upset by occasional mention of law breaking and a career path that was anything but a straight line.
A biography of this length is necessarily simplified, and Hartland chose to concentrate on the upbeat, to the point where her book sometimes feels more like it was generated by a publicist. Any reader of Walter Isaacson’s massive Jobs biography will be familiar with the concept of “Good Steve/Bad Steve” (the latter had a nasty temper, fired people without notice, and refused for years to acknowledge his daughter Lisa), and it’s mostly Good Steve on display here. The life lessons and paeans to individuality can also become more tedious than inspiring, particularly for grownups who have had to deal with challenges of their own. It’s worth noting that on the Australian Random House web page, this is listed as a children’s book, although it does not carry that designation on the American Random House web page.
One of the more interesting aspects of Steve Jobs is the way Hartland’s casual, almost childlike graphic style plays against the image of Apple products as sleek and hyperengineered. The artist she most reminds me of is Lynda Barry, and Hartland’s very personal, hand-drawn style creates an interesting counterpoint to the advanced technology of Apple products. But looked at another way, Hartland’s style is right in sync with her subject. Jobs was known for going his own way (and is often taken as a representative of the anti-corporate, anti-Bill Gates side of the personal computer revolution), and that quality has been celebrated in innumerable Apple promotions, from the 1984 Super Bowl ad to the “Think Different” campaign featuring the likes of Amelia Earhart and Mahatma Gandhi.
Bottom line: Steve Jobs: Insanely Great is readable without being particularly revealing. Two extras are included in this book: a bibliography, and notes on the sources for the chapters. | Sarah Boslaugh
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