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Published: November 27, 2012
 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69

 
 

Best Business Books 2012: Biography

In a sense, Jobs is the un-Eisenhower. He is indifferent to working through procedures and following rules, including the most basic rule of acknowledging reality, which Isaacson describes in multiple breathtaking scenes of lying and self-deception. Seductive as a Svengali-like, “mesmerizing but corrupt” preacher, Jobs enchants business partners into making deals that he revokes on a whim. Outraged at the thought of anyone stealing his ideas, he takes pride in pilfering intellectual property from Xerox. Stopped for speeding, he honks at the policeman for not writing the ticket fast enough. Because Jobs’s rule-breaking attitude is part of his success, these stories are amusing, up to a point. But when he horrifies his friends and family by refusing conventional medical treatment for a curable form of cancer, his willfulness becomes a tragic flaw.

Jobs’s lack of introspection complicated Isaacson’s task. (At one point, he simply ignores a question about why he felt a kinship with two belligerent, driven — and doomed — fictional characters, King Lear and Captain Ahab.) Steve Jobs also was completed while Jobs was dying, and published a few weeks after his death. One can’t help but wonder how the timing affected the interviews, as well as what fruit might remain on the tree in the form of sources who did not cooperate.

The biographer’s portrait, despite stories and commentaries that soften the edges, is of Jobs as detestable genius. His charisma apparently made some people loyal to him. But Jobs, in his own words as quoted in the book, is anything but charismatic, which means readers who encounter him on paper are unlikely to feel it.

Fifty years from now, when the iPad and the iPhone are superseded, what will people remember about Steve Jobs? His crystalline focus. His defining taste. His perfectionism. His intuitive salesmanship. And a pragmatic streak that expressed itself in understanding design from the user’s point of view. Jobs admired the titans of industrial design, people like Raymond Loewy. In the end, he became one of them, and more, because he also had the will and the wiles to forge his creative genius into the world’s most valuable company.

Science and Business

Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Walker & Co., 1997) and Salt: A World History (Walker & Co., 2002), likes to take his readers down the mineshaft into narrow subjects — in this case, the life of an unusual man — and use those subjects to unearth hidden realms in the commercial universe. Here, he also fills an important niche by documenting the life of an entrepreneur who changed the world.

Most people think the Birds Eye brand emblazoned on packages of frozen vegetables has something to do with an actual bird. But Kurlansky tells us otherwise. In Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, he relates the story of Clarence Birdseye, the man who changed the way the world eats by figuring out how to flash-freeze food on an industrial level. Thanks to Birdseye, by the 1930s, people who previously had lived on mushy canned goods in the winter were enjoying fresh-tasting food year-round.

Ever since childhood, Birdseye was an amateur naturalist who kept his eye on turning a profit from his hobby. Born in Brooklyn in 1886 to a prominent and wealthy family, he encountered the wild as an 8-year-old when his family bought a farm on Long Island. Two years later, he trapped a dozen live muskrats and shipped them to a customer he found in England. While attending college at Amherst, he sold frogs to the Bronx Zoo for reptile chow, and collected rats of a nearly extinct species from behind a butcher shop to sell to a geneticist.

 
 
 
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