- - Friday, February 10, 2012

By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, $35 656 pages

Walter Isaacson has become the James Boswell of genius. For the past 25 years, Mr. Isaacson has been examining the lives of subjects whose common thread is that they have been judged to have exceptional intellectual abilities that give them unprecedented insight. That last phrase, by the way, is the Wikipedia definition of genius. So there.

Unless one was living under a rock during 2011, it was impossible not to notice the death of Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, itself a media event, was accompanied by the immediate post-mortem publication of this biography, which became an international book sensation. Its record sales were undoubtedly helped by the iconic status of Jobs, who when he died sparked a mourning that rivaled the death of Princess Diana.

Now, months after its release, the book chugs along at the top of best-seller rankings without even breathing hard. This is because Mr. Isaacson lets us look into the abyss of a very dark soul indeed, and as repellent as parts of it may be, it still fascinates. Mr. Isaacson also makes it easy to read. He has provided an accessible history of the personal computer phenomenon which even nontechies will find instructive. At the same time, the author lets Jobs reveal himself as the complex and troubling personality he was in life.

Steve Jobs, it seems, was not a nice man. Abandoned by his birth mother, Jobs would in turn abandon a daughter of his own, only to end up offering some support if not love. He was a bully, a cry-baby and a dissembler with his employees. With rivals he was less than trustworthy. In fact, he invented none of the technologies most associated with Apple. Personal computers, cellphones, tablets, music downloads all were the products of other inventors and iterations of them were available often years before Jobs would unveil with theatrical fanfare his market-dominating version.

While we accept that great men often are not nice men, we will excuse them if they are geniuses by our definition. That topic also is a theme that occupies Mr. Isaacson and he should know by now.

He began his examination of exceptional intellects in 1986 when he co-wrote “Wise Men,” about a group of men - Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan and others - who skillfully negotiated the slippery slopes leading to the Cold War. That led him to examine Henry Kissinger, the genius of foreign policy realpolitik. Next, he produced a mammoth biography of Benjamin Franklin, followed by one on Albert Einstein.

One wonders whether all of those efforts were warm-up exercises for Mr. Isaacson before he tackled not just the sometimes sordid life of Steve Jobs but also man’s place in the industrial and economic phenomenon of our age - computer technology and its applications.

Kissinger of course survives in coldly arrogant isolation. But so much of what was thought to be so daringly creative about his international strategic thinking now looks in retrospect to have come out of the playbook from the Congress of Vienna. If Einstein even stands out now, it is in part because he stands on the shoulders of other mathematicians who were more skilled than he. And then there is Benjamin Franklin, that master synthesizer. Franklin did not “discover” electricity, after all. What he did was “imagine” the invisible imbalances between electrical charges - positive versus negative - that produced electricity.

What Jobs did was use that same imaginative ability to look at the complicated technologies devised by others and imagine ways to make it both more accessible - and more fun - for ordinary mortals to rush into stores to acquire it.

Without descending into psycho-babble, Mr. Isaacson also leads the reader to consider another facet of genius - the narcissism that seems an integral part of it. The narcissist is driven by shame, early abuse or abandonment to the point where they see only themselves as reality and others as either objects to be manipulated or threats to be vanquished.

In addition to imagination, they also are extremely intuitive about other people’s desires and vulnerabilities. Thus, they are no strangers to politics or the executive suite since only through constant testing and triumph can they assuage that dark inner feeling of inadequacy and fear. They are dissemblers and often can be dangerous. They can invest intense emotional investments in someone else only to turn coldly against them for some imagined slight. So Einstein was morally obtuse when it came to women. Franklin could disown his son over politics and send John Adams scurrying from Paris to Holland in fear for his life.

Throughout this fascinating, well-written and well-balanced examination, Mr. Isaacson also contrasts the emotionally flawed Jobs with his iconic rival Bill Gates. If ever there was a nice guy it is the superintelligent, if somewhat wonky but nonetheless saintly, Mr. Gates. Mr. Isaacson thinks Mr. Gates is both smart as well as good. And Jobs?

Mr. Isaacson answers his own question at the end of the book, “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical … Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.”

This is a book that will make the reader think, not just about the subject, but about others who demand our unquestioned regard.

• James Srodes is the author of biographies on John Z. DeLorean, Allen Dulles and Benjamin Franklin. His latest book, “On Dupont Circle,” will be published in August by Counterpoint.

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