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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Just the Jobs – a Surfeit of Big Steves

Steve Jobs came on holiday with me this year. An interesting companion he was – not too chatty, rather taciturn, in fact, but always present.

I’d glance round and find him on the lounger next to mine. Often he’d be around at mealtimes, sitting quietly at the table, not even asking for the salt. Occasionally, he’d be face down on the floor but someone would pick him up and he seemed no worse for wear.

Steve was so ubiquitous, I began to wonder whether there was more than one of him. Yes, indeed, it turned out there were no fewer than three Steves between about 10 adults on our holiday. Admittedly, it was a rather techy, designy, Appley sort of crowd but still – 30%! Turns out this figure isn’t out of the ball park: 383000 copies of the book were sold in the first week in the US. One source says that all 250000 copies of the Chinese edition sold within a day of its release. The book was the season’s bestseller on Amazon.

Never in the history of summer holidays has a book been so well represented, in my experience. Bill Bryson might have come close in about 2005, with A Short History of Nearly Everything. Last year Keith Richards’s autobiography was a good source of outrageous anecdotes and, helpfully, dissuaded one from that third glass of wine. But Steve Jobs, the authorised biography by Walter Isaacson, takes the cake, both for number of copies and influence.

Not only was Steve ever-present among the Jobs Readers; the non-Jobs Readers got their share of him too. The Jobs Readers were so enthralled by the book that they would read chunks and anecdotes to anyone in earshot.

No denying, these were fascinating, and they had the added advantage of sparing me the burden of having to actually read the book myself.

I felt a bit sorry for the third person to read Steve Jobs. He’d launch into a delightful tale about how Jobs insisted that the inside of the computer would look just as cool and neat as the outside, and someone would snap: “We’ve heard that one!”

So influential is Steve Jobs that, almost imperceptibly, he began to control our minds and actions. You would be untangling the strings of a kite, or preparing the braai, and a little voice inside your head would whisper: “What would Steve Jobs do?” Well, he’d certainly read his holiday books on an iPad, as did many of my holiday companions this year.

There were a couple of Kindles, but iPads were pressed into service for occupying children on long car trips, downloading recipes, keeping up with e-mails and, yes, reading. Even avowed fans of the glossy magazine loved the new Vanity Fair app.

Read the cover story on Lady Gaga, see Annie Liebowitz’s pictures, then watch a behind the scenes video of the shoot. Read the story of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall, and listen to the authentic Dixieland jazz recorded there. In these and so many other small ways, Steve Jobs’s genius touched our little corner of the Eastern Cape.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Don’t waste your pennies for their thoughts

Truly, readers today are spoilt for choice. In just the slim little sub-genre of people with silly names and dubious fame, there is a wealth of reading matter.

There’s Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, the memoirs of Bristol Palin, daughter of the former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

I don’t know if she reveals why she was named after England’s sixth largest city, but apparently she does write about how she lost her virginity to boyfriend Levi Johnston on a camping trip after too many wine coolers. The thing is, Leeds, sorry, Bristol, is only 20 and some might consider that a bit early for writing your memoirs (although Justin Bieber did it at 16 and debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list).

Others might wonder, redundantly, whether Bath, sorry, Bristol, whatever, can write. Others might say, unfairly perhaps, that having a famous mum and a teen pregnancy are insufficient grounds for publication. Not everyone is as nitpicky. The book is generating a great deal of interest in the US where Bristol is apparently popular, as only a straying sheep returned to the fold can be. She is an advocate of teen abstinence and a highly paid public speaker, having Learnt Her Lesson The Hard Way.

I might eschew Manchester’s memoir in favour of the sisterhood autobiography of the Kardashians (can’t remember their names but they all start with K), Kardashian Konfidential. Or perhaps we should wait for their first novel later this year? The book is based on the sisters’ lives – okay, I Googled their names for you and they are Kim, Kourtney and Khloe. See my dedication to literature? – and is a mixture of fiction and fact (like the rest of their lives, one might say).

Considering the alleged demise of the “dead-tree” industry, it is astonishing how much absolute drivel is published in the celebrity memoir genre. You would think that the fewer the number of books being published, the more picky the publishers would be, and that we readers would benefit from this refined choice.

Instead, it seems, they are playing to the crowd. And we all know where that leads: to memoirs and autobiographies of people you’ve barely heard of, or can hardly bear, or who should stick to their knitting/singing/self-promoting. In other words, to The Woman I Was Born To Be, by Susan Boyle. And to My Story, by Dannii Minogue. And, indeed, to Cheryl Cole’s Through My Eyes. And so on…

I love a good memoir, but two conditions apply. First, the person must be interesting. Nowadays, the popular view is that everyone is by definition interesting, and that their own special perspective is worthwhile, and, as a result, many people have taken to writing about themselves and their experiences. Sorry. No. It may be cathartic, but it’s not interesting.

If you are, say, Keith Richards, and both a rock ‘n’ roll legend and a medical miracle for simply being alive after all that drug abuse, you get to write Life. And as his life was filled with fame and craziness and fantastic riffs, he had plenty to write about (“For many years,” he says, “I slept, on average, twice a week”). He also meets condition number two – that the person can actually write, preferably with style and a bit of self-irony and even, if we’re really lucky, a sense of humour.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist

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