Read Me, Daniel
From the moment I finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs I’ve wanted my son, Daniel, to read it. For one thing my son is a gifted engineer in the making. He has fashioned a whole manner of weird and wonderful things: weed whacker engines turned into RC plane motors, a firefighting robot that he programmed to navigate a maze and extinguish a flame, a hand cranked slow motion photography “dolly” for his sister constructed this summer from roller blade wheels and a meat grinder gear and spool.
When he was four I purchased a 600+ piece triplane to build together with him and after laying out the parts one evening on the dining room table, he carefully stepped through the instructions piece by piece and built it himself. Astonishing. He has many gifts, but his capacities as a budding engineer are the most jaw-dropping.
Having said that (and painted him as a left-brain technician,) one evening this summer he painted this on the iPad:
So when I finished the remarkable account of Steve Jobs life (and personality) I wanted him to be inspired by it. And I wanted him to see that the ways that people accomplish things in the world and the personalities that make things happen are as varied as what gets done. The idea of how we think the world is created and how it is actually created can be wildly divergent. That a man who cried and wept and yelled and berated and cajoled and humiliated people could create
one two of the most inspirational companies in the history of our country is unprecedented. The biography is the sparkling account of the power and the perils of rejecting the status quo and the prevailing orthodoxy of a time. Or so it seems to me. Pointing out that so many of the objects in our lives that we appreciate have been shaped by a single man’s vision is, well, probably preaching to what has become a very large choir at this point.
When Daniel headed off to school last year I had him trudge the biography along with him, and I kept waiting for him to tell me he had started and was “200 pages in” and he “couldn’t believe how great it was,” but that call never came. It still hasn’t come. It may never come.
But last week I upped the stakes. I had the pleasure of hearing Walter Isaacson speak at a convention I was attending, and he shared amazing accounts of Jobs, and also of Einstein, and most movingly of Benjamin Franklin, all men that he has studied and written about. If you ever have the opportunity hear Isaacson speak or be interviewed, do not miss it.
And after the speech there was a book signing for the paperback edition of the Jobs biography that just came out the same day. I waited in line for some time and I thought about an anecdote he related about how Jobs had everyone on the original Mac team sign their names into the inside cover of the computer. The world would never know that the team’s names were inscribed there, but they would know, and this idea of quality being something that is held in the heart of the creator for things seen and unseen resonated with me and, I believe, the entire audience. Jobs’ own father imparted that gift to him when the two were nailing together a fence when Jobs was a young man. If you want to know more, well, you’ll have to read the book.
So when I got to Isaacson I realized I didn’t care if he signed the book. I would always know that he’d written in it; I was there. And when I gave the book to Daniel, he would know it was Isaacson. But what I really wanted was for Daniel to read the book. So instead of asking for a signature, I wanted Isaacson to scribble out a simple imperative on the title page. I just wanted him to write “Read me, Daniel.” You don’t even need to sign it, I explained.
Now this is truly forcing a book down somebody’s throat, and I know I’m doing that, and I can’t help it, and I don’t care; I’m treating the book like medicine, but I feel like if I can just get Daniel started on this biography he’ll get such joy from the story, such a feel for the real world of things being made and falling apart, that it will be a kind of foundational myth for him, in the same way a “We Were There” biography of Thomas Edison was for me. (Just for the record, all of dad’s lessons are not so heavy.)
Isaacson looked up at me in a way that suggested I had broken through, if only slightly, from the unending pilgrim wave of books to sign. He smiled and asked me if I’d like his signature at the bottom as well, and I said why not. The signed paperback biography now sits on Daniel’s shelf at boarding school, and I feel like I have practically guaranteed that it will be read by him.