Last night I finished reading a recently published biography “Steve Jobs” written by Walter Isaacson. This book appeared shortly after Jobs’ death in October 2011 at the young age of 56. I have read Isaacson’s other biographies of prominent individuals (Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein). He is a superb writer and takes the time to really understand the people he is writing about. In the case of Albert Einstein, that has to have been difficult because of the highly technical nature of what Einstein did as a theoretical physicist, but he succeeded so very well. I had read previous biographies of Einstein, but this was as good as it got, so to speak. With Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs there were many contemporary people available who knew both of these individuals well, and whose interviews played a major role in both of these biographies, in contrast with the historic figures of Franklin and Einstein whose contemporaries are no longer around (for the most part), and one was dependent upon the written sources.
With Steve Jobs, Isaacson spent several years interviewing him and many of his business and personal acquaintances. What came out, in my view, was a picture of a not so very nice person, who accomplished great things. I refer you to the biographer’s own words telling the story of a very complicated personality that affected the world so much. It would be inappropriate for me to try to summarize any of the story here. It is a very complicated one. I recommend the book very much to everyone.
I recently finished reading a biography of Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle. This was a multivolume biography which included the whole history of Prussia and its predecessors over more than 1000 years. It took me several months to finish this book, which is very outstanding in its own way (reading the Jobs biography is a matter of days; much easier). In a biography of the past, like this one about Frederick II of Prussia, one learns so much about the culture and the time in which the biographee is living, most of which is completely different from our modern culture. This is true, it seems to me, of most biographies of figures from earlier than the 20th century. The Steve Jobs biography that we have here is completely different in this regard. All of the 20th and 21st century events and circumstances that shaped Jobs’ life seem quite familiar to the contemporary reader (either by personal experience or having learned about them in the contemporary media). Reading this kind of biography is more a confirmation of what each of us knows about our society rather than learning something new about an older way of life.
In summary, Frederick was trying to build a modern Europe, and Jobs was trying to build a new way of life. They both accomplished many things that they set out to do, and were both driven by their own internal forces to achieve things that would have been impossible for most, if not all, of their contemporaries.