Midnight release parties have become common for blockbuster movies, video games, young adult/fantasy fiction and anything else likely to command long lines of loyal nerds. As far as I know, no physical bookstores held Harry Potter-style release parties for Walter Isaacson’s new biography. But we nerds stood in a virtual queue for Steve Jobs just the same.
A full hour before the official digital release, blogger/investor Dave Pell captured the mood, tweeting with tongue half in cheek: “Aside from big religious holidays, there have probably never been more people reading the same book at the same time.” Preorders had already made the Jobs biography a best-seller for Kindle, iBooks and Nook. Jobs’ death on Oct. 5 saw preorders skyrocket, leading Simon & Schuster to accelerate the publication date.
Just think: Not so long ago, Simon & Schuster might have delayed the e-book release by as much as four months after the print release date. Now, an Amazon spokesperson says that the Jobs biography may be Amazon’s bestseller for all of 2011, with Forrester analyst James McQuivey claiming that, given current trends in bestselling books, the Steve Jobs e-book may outperform print for up to six months and account for up to 70% of all sales.
Not bad for a market Steve Jobs once wrote off with the remark, “people don’t read anymore.”
Excited reports on blogs and Twitter revealed that readers who’d preordered the Jobs biography for the Kindle or iBooks got to cut the line by a few hours. At least, some did; Gizmodo’s Mat Honan wrote: “Unlike everyone else, the Steve Jobs bio hasn’t showed up on my Kindle yet. Man, Apple is *really* thorough when it comes to Gizmodo writers.” In fact, Jobs’ biography probably includes as much score-settling as storytelling; while his fight with Gizmodo over the now-famous prerelease iPhone 4 comes up, it’s only as a minor skirmish in a lifetime of battles.
This appears to be by design. According to the introduction, Jobs sought out Isaacson as a biographer because (in Jobs’ words) “I think you’re good at getting people to talk.” Jobs gave Isaacson extended, candid interviews, and encouraged him to speak with everyone (and encouraged others to speak candidly with him). In the book, Jobs is outspoken and opinionated about everyone and everything, and his contemporaries are usually all-too-happy to return the favor when discussing him.
Most of the best gossip has already filtered out through a handful of news outlets lucky enough to “acquire” early copies, as well as Isaacson’s lengthy Sunday night interview with “60 Minutes.” Still, partly because of Issacson’s method and the cooperation he received, and partly because most of the events described are so recent, with plenty of high-profile living witnesses, the book sometimes feels as much oral history as “traditional” biography. Nearly every story has several voices narrating and assessing it: You don’t just learn what happened, but how people reacted in the moment, as well as their reactions to each other.
All of this — the media attention, the instant digital delivery and overnight reading, the still-newsworthy conflict-driven stories, the fact that Jobs’ death was less than three weeks ago, the palpable sense that these were effectively his last words, as well as Jobs’ inherent fascination as a subject — makes the biography feel infinitely more of the moment than most books in its genre.
Jobs wasn’t a distant historical figure like Benjamin Franklin or a swiftly receding one like Albert Einstein, but a living force in our culture and repeating character in many of our lives. To us, he really was more like Harry Potter, whipping up his fans into a frenzy with feats of magic while skeptics clucked their tongues.
Even the arc of Jobs’ life roughly imitates Harry Potter’s: his adoption by Paul and Clara Jobs (Isaacson’s first chapter is titled “Childhood: Abandoned and Chosen”), his childhood gifts, his love of pranks and adventure, his luck in finding friends and partners, his close escapes from certain doom followed by eventual triumphs. He wore his “reality distortion field” like an invisible cloak, a keynote clicker like an elder wand.
Jobs, though, is Harry Potter without the fantasy: insufferably arrogant, capable of inflicting damage around him that couldn’t be wished away, and ultimately, unable to master death. But he also knew this about himself.
Jobs’ biography may be the first great digital book event, a last hurrah for the universally appealing hardcover, a collective reading experience of Potteresque proportions. But it’s also a call to grow up, and to try to see the man as he was, not as we (or he) wished he might be.