Kaufman’s biography of financier George Soros begins with a sales pitch. According to its introduction, two main ingredients make the book special. First is the fact of Soros’s cooperation in preparing the book. After vetoing other would-be biographers’ attempts to gather firsthand information, the introduction explains, Soros agreed to help Kaufman by sitting for interviews, providing personal photos, and encouraging friends and associates to do the same. Having drawn on unique source material, Kaufman proposes that his portrait of Soros will penetrate more deeply than other accounts of the financier’s life do.
The second point is the author’s willingness to criticize his subject. Kaufman describes how Soros, in agreeing to cooperate with the project, insisted that the book include a disclaimer attesting to the book’s status as an “unofficial” biography. To underscore that Kaufman and Soros spurn the practice of hagiography, Kaufman quotes himself telling Soros (and Soros approving) that his book will not shy away from unflattering aspects of the Soros story.
At the end of the book, Kaufman reveals that he was unable to gather information from most of the people closest to Soros and the critical distance he promised earlier gives way to soberly articulated adulation. In spite of this, the facts of Soros’s life turn out to be so compelling that the validity of the biographer’s introductory remarks about his relationship with Soros turns out not to matter much. Simply by collecting and reporting the facts, Kaufman’s work conveys a captivating story covering important ideas and key historical moments of the late twentieth century. Soros’s experiences in World War II, his unusual mix of strategy and intuition in dealing with financial risk, and his humanitarian motives for proposing sweeping policy changes on a global scale provide numerous points of departure for pondering age-old questions about how the world works and the meaning of life.
Soros was born in 1930 to a family of Hungarian Jews named Schwartz who owned property, had two maids, and enjoyed a leisurely but not extravagant lifestyle. Soros describes his father as someone who “did not have a real job but just made money.” Instead of long hours at the office, Soros’s father worked for himself and spent much of his time talking to his two sons, educating them about world events, telling subtly moralistic stories, and trying to instill in them a sense of great ambition.
Then the events of World War II intruded into the Hungarian family’s otherwise idyllic way of life. One of the first personal consequences for the Schwartz family was their name change. After searching for a satisfactory non-Jewish replacement for “Schwartz,” the family in 1936 settled on the name Soros, which means “will soar” in Esperanto.
Making do in an increasingly dangerous environment, the Soros family took extraordinary measures to survive while carrying on with life in remarkably graceful fashion. The family paid to have a special hideout constructed. They devised coded communication schemes. They procured fake identities. They even went to the trouble of dispersing themselves geographically (in order to reduce the risk of being discovered by the Nazis), using elaborate means of secret communication to stay in contact. The seventy-year-old Soros recollects the challenge of surviving World War II and later escaping from behind the Iron Curtain in surprisingly fond terms. From his present vantage point, Soros remembers these harrowing experiences as having brought meaning and excitement to his otherwise prosaic adolescent life. Pitted against a concrete adversary and engaged in a high-stakes struggle, the challenges of surviving struck young George as thrilling, fulfilling a deep-felt need for involvement in a process of righting moral wrongs.
In 1947, Soros escaped to London. Instead of feeling relief, though, he was unhappy, finding little success in school, struggling to attract women, and missing the excitement of his daily fight for survival in Hungary. With an undistinguished academic record reflecting a particular weakness in mathematics, Soros unsuccessfully attempted to enter the London School of Economics. Persevering, he made it in after retaking the entrance exams multiple times. Once admitted and enrolled, he discovered he was underwhelmed with the field of economics, attracted to the academic style of argument more than its substance. Nonetheless, Soros entertained real intellectual aspirations and has struggled to write in the genre of academic philosophy his whole life long. One person who genuinely aroused Soros’s intellect at the London School of Economics was Karl Popper, a preeminent figure in the philosophy of science. Arguing that policy should aim to minimize “avoidable harm” rather than maximize happiness and that self-correcting democratic processes characteristic of “open societies” were the best...
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