As I stood outside the Central Station one October, after half-a-century's absence, waiting for my daughter to purchase tram tickets, I realised, when the first icy blast from the North Sea bit into my cheek; when I heard the unforgettable cries of the seagulls as they dipped and soared above the canals and gabled roofs; when the musical bells chimed from the churches, Amsterdam is as addictive as the product peddled in one of its infamous coffee shops.
I therefore looked forward to reading Russell Shorto's account of the city in which I learned Dutch, studied music at the Conservatory, married a Dutchman, gave birth to my first child, and left regretfully after four years. How I wish that I had had the author's history with me then, when I was wandering through the narrow streets alongside the grachten--the moats that circle the city, always conscious of the beauty of its art and architecture; of the contradictions of life in what I was assured was the Venice of the North. Instead, with the self-centered blindness of a twenty-year old, I was completely ignorant of the layers of history that went beyond what I saw in the tall houses with their quaint hooks, or what I saw depicted in the immense painting, Captain Banningcocq's Sharpshooters (aka Rembrandt's "Night Watch") in the Rijksmuseum.
For me, Mr Shorto's "Amsterdam" is the most interesting when he peels away the historical layers of the brick buildings, moving from present to to past. For instance, in his chapter on the East India Company, he puts the reader into the shoes of a tourist arriving in Amsterdam, walking out of the lelijk--ugly--Victorian pile of the Central Station, crossing the New Bridge and confronting the even more lelijk Damrak, a procession of "kebab stands, marijuana dispensaries, beer palaces, casinos, sex arcades, Automat sausage vendors, and displays of dusty postcards and wooden-shoe keychain fobs" (My hairdresser and obstetrician's offices were located on the Damrak, which, even though it was then lacking in most of the above-named amenities, was nevertheless just as ugly). It is so fascinating to discover that here was the first financial district: Stocks, speculation, futures-trading, short-selling--so many of the scandals ripped out of the twenty-first century headlines--were happening on the very spot in the seventeenth century. I wish that the author had used more of his technique of moving from street-to-street, peeling away the rich layers of history.
Anyone who knows and cherishes a love/hate relationship with the city of Amsterdam will enjoy this book thoroughly. As for readers, who may be unfamiliar with the city, the book is lacking in several respects: it cries out for an index (perhaps this will be forthcoming as the footnotes are still at the page '00' stage) and maps, if not photos. One realises that photographs are expensive nowadays, but certainly some line-drawing maps--a) of the city itself; b) of the Netherlands and its former master Spain; c) a world map showing the extent of the acquisitions of the Dutch East Indies Company--would have enhanced the book significantly. As fascinating as Amsterdam's history is, if one cannot visualise the geography, the historical narrative can become opaque.
Meanwhile, I suggest a visit to Google Maps (with satellite view turned on) while reading, because if you zoom in to street level, you will be able to 'walk' down the streets and appreciate the richness of the history about which Mr Shorto writes, often compellingly.