On diaries, ebooks, kindles, twitter, life, death, my friend Philip, Steve Jobs’ legacy and meeting Ralph Fiennes)
Posted on 25 January 2012 | 6:01am
I am trying my best to get used to this ebook thing, having ‘a book out’ but with nothing to give to friends, nothing to sign for people who ‘buy’ it, no physical product to point to as you talk about it.
So last night, when I was talking about diaries with fellow diarist and media sceptic Chris Mullin at an event organised by The Institute for Government, I sensed both of us felt more comfortable with these big slabs of book – seven volumes and several novels between us so far – sitting there on tables in the bar area.
Yet I was the one arguing for politicians to embrace the social media of the digital age – whilst staying alive to its downsides – as a way to let politicians and public shape a better debate than the one promoted by the mainstream media. A man from Twitter told me afterwards I ought to be on their payroll for the promotion I gave them — go on then!
And, as I sit here bashing this out before heading to Gatwick for a flight to Budapest, I am looking at the three books I’m planning to take with me, (the Steve Jobs biography, The Help and David Malouf’s ‘The Happy Life‘), and I’m thinking ‘that’s a lot of space, and a fair bit of weight for a man who never does hold luggage.’ So I find myself going online elsewhere, and getting them for my ipad kindle, if that is the correct terminology And while there I see other books I suddenly fancy, and I add them too. I started with 3 taking up a third of one compartment in my wheelie bag, and ended with 6 taking up a sliver of an ipad. I’ll only read one max two and finish neither, as I’m back tomorrow night.
Part of me is screaming ‘I like BOOKS, I like paper, I like the feel, I like typography, I like the coffee cup stains, I like to know how far through I am, I like Daunt Books bookmarks … I like to see what everyone else is reading on the train, the plane, in the airport lounges.’
But the more rational part is doing what my equally technophobic literary agent Ed Victor told me he did recently before a holiday – got the books he wanted to take, packed them, unpacked them, and then nervously downloaded the lot of them to his kindle.
In the States there were more than four million kindles sold as Christmas presents. Standing against this tide reminds me of the silent movie actor in The Artist who couldn’t adapt to the arrival of talkies. We gotta go with the flow.
So I am, I am, which is why I have barely mentioned last week’s paperback publication of volume 3 of my diaries, (annoying one part of Random House) whilst – as you may have noticed – banging on all over the online place about The Happy Depressive (to the delight of Digital Dan the man trying to get ebooks to take over the world).
The Guardian is the only paper to run a big chunk. The Times did an excellent editorial. The FT have run a piece and a couple of letters on what it says about mental health in the workplace. I’ve done a couple of radio and telly things. But all the promotion has been online, and the best promotion has been from people who have read it, tweeted they liked it or reviewed it on Amazon, or both, sufficient already for agent and publisher to be asking if I don’t have another mental health book in me.
So I confess to mild feeling of chuffed-ness on being told by Digital Dan that I was yesterday just one slot behind the Steve Jobs biography in the itunes biography and memoirs charts (of whose existence I was unaware until that moment). But there we were, Jobs’ stern face at Number 5, mine just below at Number 6, both a little way behind Confessions of a GP in top slot, and by this morning I was back at 9.
But it got me thinking, as writing the ebook did, about death and legacy. The chart itself is part of Jobs’ legacy. So was my looking at the chart, its instantaneousness, its responsiveness to real time change, its absorption of the views and behaviour of people all around the world.
I’ve only skimread Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography – it’s one of the reasons I was planning to put it in my bag for the flight to Budapest – but I have been fascinated by the coverage of the book, and of Jobs’ death more generally.
When he died weeping supporters created shrines to their demigod outside their temples, Apple Stores, all over the world. Many of the obituaries, overwhelmed by the twin words ‘grief’ and ‘genius’ on the rolling news channels, tended to avoid the less savoury or less successful chapters in his life story. Not so the Isaacson book which is far from an unqualified hagiography. A lot of the media comment sprung from his past experiments with LSD, his status as a hippy billionaire, contrasted with the often harsh treatment of his employees.
The products Apple create are sleek, must-have desirable, have helped define the modern era, and changed the way we live forever, but Jobs himself was very much a (flawed) human being. Apparently he was driven to the point of monomania and exerted an influence on his employees that sought them to explain their decisions through the prism of his own feelings and objectives: it seems good ideas were good because they conformed to his expectations, but bad ideas were often dismissed as ‘shit’ and the onus was on the originator of that idea to bring Steve around to the point that he believed he had come up with it.
He also made many mistakes along the way, survived many setbacks, shed many tears and yet he really did change the world we live in.
So I am left wondering – was Steve Jobs happy? Would he have summed up his own life as a happy one? Was he content with his achievements when he died? I’ve written here and in The Happy Depressive about my friend and colleague Philip Gould reaching a near blissful state of fulfillment when he reached ‘the death zone’ stage of his fight with cancer. As I hope The Guardian extract showed, he faced death with a force and a serenity that was for his friends a thing of solace and even beauty, however much we cried when finally he went. In Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement address from 2005 he confided with the audience about his then recent recovery from the cancer that would return and kill him, stating that he hoped to live for a few more decades more and that ‘No-one wants to die’, but –tellingly− he added, ‘Death is the destination we all share, and that’s how it should be, because death is likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent: it clears out the old to make way for the new.’ I think Philip would have agreed wholeheartedly with this. New Labour New Britain and all that. He rewrote his brilliant book, The Unfinished Revolution, as a ‘letter to the next generation,’ and his own account of his battle with cancer and eventual death will be told in the posthumous An Unfinished Life.’
If the pursuit of happiness is life’s journey, then death is its ultimate destination and, in many ways, its ultimate fulfilment. I can’t claim to have any great or privileged insight into the life of Steve Jobs, but what he helped create in his work at Apple and at Pixar has at least contributed to the happiness of millions, and that must have meant a lot to him when he passed away, as did perhaps even more so the knowledge that his work would impact on generations to come.
I’m guessing, but if Philip reached 8 on the death zone happiness meter (and that is as high as it can get in my worldview) I reckon Jobs would be a 6.5. I’m currently around 4 but as I say in the ebook, we don’t really know until we near the end, and we do our own reckoning about whether by our own criteria – mine are family, relationships which endure, fulfilment through achievement, and experiences which matter to us and to others and from which we learn – whether we have lived a happy life.
Forgive me for guessing about Jobs, but people guess about each other all the time. Like when I was having lunch with Ed Victor yesterday, in walks Ralph Fiennes – Ed knows him, I don’t – and I start the lunch saying I thought he was a great actor but he didn’t seem my kind of guy, and after meeting him an hour later thought he was nothing like I expected and totally charming.
Maybe Steve Jobs would have had the same effect. I only met him once and it was as part of a frenetic and over-crowded meeting with lots of big egos and big ideas and I couldn’t really form an impression. So all I have to go on is other people’s words and memories, and a powerful legacy shaped by the words, memories and actions of millions and millions of people, many yet unborn.
Enough … At this rate I’ll miss the plane. Ta-ta. Memo to WHS — have any stock of the diaries ready, I’ll sign on the way through North Terminal. I’m not embracing this brave new world to the exclusion of the old one you know. Not yet.