Steve Jobs is not a man who lends himself to easy adulation, and one does not envy Patricia Lakin the task of presenting her condensed biography of his life, Steve Jobs: Thinking Differently, to middle-grade readers. As a child, Jobs swaps all his classmates bike locks, causing a mass panic. In middle school, he calls up Bill Hewlett, of Hewlett-Packard, at home to ask for some parts for a project he is working on (Bill says yes, and offers him a summer job). By his late teens, he and Steve Wosniak are using audio frequencies to manipulate telecommunications systems — so-called phone phreaking — and prank calling the pope at the Vatican. In an awkward stab at drawing a moral lesson, Lakin points out that phone phreaking involves “expert technical skills,” as well as a “willingness to take risks,” qualities that would serve Jobs well later in life, even if, like hacking, phone phreaking is illegal.
He then goes to Reed college, but drops out after six months to become one of the “free-thinking young people” — “some called themselves ‘hippies,'” Lakin explains, helpfully — eating free Hare Krishna food, planning a trip to India to find a guru, and insisting that if he just ate the right foods, he would not need to shower. (“It was not a theory that worked: his body odor was evident,” according to the girlfriend of a friend with whom he often crashed.) Once in India, he has the revelation that it might be just as noble to be an Edison, a maker of things, as to be a maker of ideas. And back home, he proceeds to do just that, building Apple computers out of his parents’ garage by age 21, despite the fact that “it never occurred to him to comb his hair, put on shoes, and wear a clean shirt” to business meetings.
Lakin, whose sources appear to rely on published articles and the Walter Isaacson biography, does an admirable job of connecting the intellectual dots — including cabinetry, electronics, and calligraphy — that led to the making of Steve Jobs. But ultimately, the man is far too messy to fit neatly into anyone’s hagiography. Think different, kids. Or “differently,” as the subtitle of this book has it, reverting back to the more conventional grammar.