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The Zen of Steve Jobs Paperback – January 3, 2012
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Q&A with Author Caleb Melby
All considered, a full-length biography was out of the question. Jesse Thomas of Jess3 had talked with Forbes managing editor Bruce Upbin back in the spring of 2011 shortly before I arrived in New York City, wanting to do a collaborative story that looked at the development of Steve's design aesthetic. That focus really got at the heart of both Steve and Apple, without requiring a more comprehensive longitudinal narrative.
Steve, throughout his life, dabbled in numerous modes of self-improvement and self-actualization. He experimented with drugs and, for a time, he only ate fruit, believing that doing so would keep him from sweating (talk about devotion to perfection). Zen Buddhism stuck with Steve the longest, and Kobun was Steve's mentor, in both Buddhism and design. The Buddhist priest was so influential in Steve's life during the mid-80s that Steve named him NeXT's spiritual guru. But what really got me was the strong parallels in their worldviews - they are both rule-breakers and innovators. The idea of telling those stories in tandem really excited me.
What's the most interesting piece of information you found out during the research for this story?
The overarching narrative about perfection was, and still is, the most perplexing theme I encountered while researching this. I wanted to know what the "Buddhist" perspective on perfection was. Now, to talk about "Buddhism" is kind of like talking about "Christianity." There are numerous sects with their own schools of thought and particular traditions. I'd ask my sources: "What does Buddhism say about perfection?" They all laughed at me. I guess I'm kind of revealing my doctrinal Catholic roots, but I expected a clear-cut answer. There wasn't one.
Steve believed in perfection. Kobun didn't. He believed in self-betterment, sure, but he also believed in achieving peace within oneself and with one's surroundings. Perfectionists are never at peace. In popular culture, we like to think of Buddhist priests as being these absolutely serene and wise individuals. But Kobun's life was filled with tumult. In the end, that's what drives these two men apart. One of them wants to be the perfect innovator making perfect products on a massive scale. The other is working to achieve peace with himself, his family and his surroundings. When Steve starts having tremendous success again in the 90s, he and Kobun no longer see eye-to-eye. Perfection is the nail that drives that splinter.
What didn't make the cut that you really wish you could have found room for?
I've mentioned before that I drew inspiration from Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson when writing this. I wanted to focus on the relationship between Steve and Kobun, like Watterson did with Calvin and Hobbes, which meant actively excluding scenes that would introduce characters that would bog down the development of that relationship. So a lot of scenes didn't fit. Laurene Powell was incredibly important to Steve, and Kobun officiated the couple's marriage. But I couldn't introduce Laurene only to make her disappear. Their marriage is one of the best-documented public interactions between Steve and Kobun, but I had to let it go.
Why tell this story through a graphic depiction rather than in words?
The written style of the book is kind of epigrammatic. It mirrors the style of the koan, a storytelling and learning device used largely by Rinzai Zen Buddhists (Kobun was a Soto Zen Buddhist himself). It's pithy. This style fits better with Steve's actual mode of conversation than it does Kobun's. Steve is a dramatic, direct speaker. Kobun was wise beyond measure, but he was also something of a rambling lecturer. Had I not edited down those talks, they would have crowded the beautiful illustrations that Jess3 created. But there were wonderful kernels at the center of Kobun's lectures. So that was the point, to get to the essence of Steve and Kobun in such a way that the story could largely be told through images. In the end, this is an inherently visual story. The meditating, the calligraphy, the aging are all innately visual. It's also a book about design. You can write about design, or you can illustrate design. This is a story that was meant to be told graphically.
Top Customer Reviews
The story calmly flows independent of any formula. The illustrations and dialogue are minimalistic - the creators are clearly influenced by, and appreciate the subject at hand. I admit, the first time I read through it, I wasn't as pleased as I am now. It wasn't until I read through the background and intent of the book that I realized my appreciation. This isn't as much about story telling as it is about conveying a feeling... and imagining how it must have been to be a part of the private interaction that occurred between Kobun and Steve Jobs.
There isn't much else to say about the book. Jobs, like many Americans, dipped into Buddhism because he liked some aspects of it but never fully committed and eventually left it altogether. One of Jobs' tasks when learning about Zen Buddhism was to learn to walk and meditate at the same time in a circle. The author then makes it seem that this exercise led to Apple's famous circle on the iPod and then later Apple's circular HQ (never mind that Jobs employed teams of talented designers who actually came up with these ideas).
Kobun is a fairly ordinary character though he's portrayed as an "outsider" to Zen Buddhism because he doesn't beat his students with a stick and eats hot fudge sundaes at Denny's. Anyone looking for a book on Jobs' life won't find it here as the book is centrally about Jobs' dabbling with Buddhism. Jobs fanatics might enjoy this book, for anyone else, I wouldn't bother.
Content is OK, but definitely not enough for 10 bucks. If it wouldn't be so nicely done, I'd call it a rip-off.
A book with few words, big ideas, and thoughts that will change how you think - if you give it the time and a chance.
The art is pretty incredible. I loved its stripped-down, bare-bones approach coupled with soft, muted dual tones. The art is simple and approachable in the way Apple products are, and the simplicity fits well with the arc of the narrative.
The story is an imagining of what occurred between Jobs and Kobun, who were friends on and off for two decades. As such, it feels somewhat "off" to pretend we can truly know what their conversations were like through the years. Yet Melby spent a lot of time interviewing former students of Kobun and others to build a reliable framework. Moreover, he keeps his text simple and straightforward. What results is an interesting, intriguing look into the spiritual life of a remarkable creative genius.
Reviewed by John Hogan
How his mind changed during the course of the time. I also learned about the way he and therefore Apple thinks, so I can apply that way of thinking to my own business.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This book was a different approach of what I was expecting and I definitely love it. Even though I know this book is fiction it lifts jobs myth as a renegade who put asides money... Read morePublished 3 months ago
interesting book. more graphic than story. but still a quick good readPublished 10 months ago by Spc
A highly fictionalized account of the relationship between Steve Jobs and a Buddhist Monk named Kobun Chino Otogawa. Read morePublished on May 8, 2014 by Jacob Secrest
Really love this book. One of my favourite books. Love the cartoon and different feel of the book. Real simple and easy to read with a few real learning point that worth reading... Read morePublished on September 20, 2013 by Jeroc
I recommend The Zen of Steve Jobs once you've read Walter Isaacson's excellent biography on the man. Read morePublished on September 5, 2013 by Daniel Estes
Simple, yet deep. Two people on human journey, who came closer than most to the understanding of spiritual and material refinement, or at least the process of it.Published on August 21, 2013 by japger
Caleb Melby takes on an interesting aspect of Steve Jobs' life - that of his fascination with Zen Buddhism and his decades long friendship with (Master) Chino Otogawa. Read morePublished on August 5, 2013 by Sibelius
This novella makes for an interesting and quick read. I finished it in literally 30 minutes after downloading it. It flows naturally, jumping between time, without breaks or edges. Read morePublished on May 19, 2013 by Pradyot Ghate
As an admirer of Mr. Jobs, I greatly appreciated the excellent art and attention to the specific story. Read morePublished on February 20, 2013 by Andrew Graves