When a subject is still alive and tends to avoid the limelight, a group-sourced Festschrift (or collection of essays) rather than a standard biography, makes a lot of sense. Scholars with expertise in finance, or Central Europe in the war years, or China’s private sector can each discuss the aspects of Soros’s career they understand best. While this produces some overlap, George Soros: A Life in Full almost seems to mirror a Soros project development meeting: many voices heard, all respected.
Since Soros is an unknown quantity to most of us, readers come to this volume with many questions, many of which the contributors address: did Soros inherit his wealth? How does he make so much money? What does “open society” mean and why is it so important? The book’s mission is to understand the uniqueness of Soros’s approach to the world — to finance, geopolitics, philanthropy, and more.
Three basic principles are definitive. The first is the role of misperceptions, the idea that we do not always see things as they are; we see them as we (or others) want them to be. Economists may tell us that exchange rates equilibrate trade flows; Hungarian Jewish councils may tell us to placate the Nazis by supplying registration information. Whatever the cause, it is faulty to allow such misperceptions to govern our reactions. Second, our involvement in situations — buying currencies, aiding dissenters — changes outcomes, a principle Soros calls “reflexivity.” Reflexivity leads naturally to a third principle, the need for improvisation. When situations change, to look back, to study what has happened, is less important than revising future strategy. These three principles are denied in closed societies, where outcomes are defined by the rulers.
Open societies accept the idea of error (aka misperceptions) and allow dynamic adjustment. Still, these principles might remain mere talking points in a person with no stomach for risk, which is where Soros’s personal history comes into play. Evading the Nazis as a teenager in Hungary, after years of listening to his father’s stories of escaping from Siberia, Soros built his own in-it-to-win-it relationship to risk.
Sometimes one opens a book with a particular question in mind, but the focus shifts midway. Many may start this book wanting to know how a relatively non-religious man like George Soros became the worldwide incarnation of the hated Jew. And while the last pages do explore this, by the time they get there, many readers will have found infinitely more interesting aspects to the Soros story.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.