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Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City [Hardcover]

Russell Shorto
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 Oct 2013

Amsterdam is not just any city. Despite its relative size it has stood alongside its larger cousins - Paris, London, Berlin - and has influenced the modern world to a degree that few other cities have.

Sweeping across the city's colourful thousand year history, Amsterdam brings the place to life: its sights and smells; its politics and people. Concentrating on two significant periods - the late 1500s to the mid 1600s and then from the Second World War to the present, Russell Shorto's masterful biography looks at Amsterdam's central preoccupations. Just as fin-de-siecle Vienna was the birthplace of psychoanalysis, seventeenth century Amsterdam was the wellspring of liberalism, and today it is still a city that takes individual freedom very seriously.

A wonderfully evocative book that takes Amsterdam's dramatic past and present and populates it with a whole host of colourful characters, Amsterdam is the definitive book on this great city.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (22 Oct 2013)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1408703475
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408703472
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.6 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 131,651 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


The story of a great city that has shaped the soul of the world. Masterful reporting, vivid history - the past and present are equally alive in this book (James Gleick, author of The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood)

An often brilliant - and always enjoyable - investigation of liberalism's Dutch roots. Shorto is once again revealed as a passionate and persuasive historian of culture and ideas (Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland)

Shorto is an excellent storyteller and rootler of strange facts, and Amsterdam should be issued as standard kit for anyone visiting the city (Guardian)

[Shorto's] fine portraits of individuals are in the Amsterdam tradition, and he has an Amsterdammer's feel for this backwater town that remains the world's laboratory of liberalism (FT)

Rich and eventful . . . [A] book that easily fuses large cultural trends with intimately personal stories (New York Times)

Book Description

This is the first 'biography' of the city of Amsterdam - in the same vein as Peter Ackroyd's London.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bringing the history of Amsterdam to life 7 Feb 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent history of the city but also gives some fascinating insights into the development of Dutch culture over the centuries. The Dutch were lucky enough not to suffer the feudal system where the wealth of a nation was concentrated into the hands of a few people (usually at the pointed end of a weapon or naked treachery) and this is still reflected to some extent in society today. The book breathes life into parts of Amsterdam that may not otherwise be discovered by people and would be an interesting read if you are planning to visit the city.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We researched and written 2 Dec 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The history of Amsterdam reads like a novel and is utterly fascinating that a small nation could yield so much power and possess so much wealth not unlike the English empire a couple of centuries later.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written but not always accurate 6 Dec 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A highly enthusiastic and atmospheric introduction to the city . I feel I have been there already, although I have yet to visit. However there are inaccuracies in the text. Chief among them is his treatment of the Anabaptist movement. He confuses the wild and bizarre behaviour of the people running naked through the streets , setting up their own kingdom in Munster with the sober, Trinitarian, orthodox real anabaptists. A movement spreading from Switzerland through to the Mennonites in Holland. They were the radical reformation who rejected infant baptism and the union of church and state . They rejected force and have nothing to do with what happened in amsterdam and Munster. He ought to read "the reformers and their stepchildren" by verduin (baker house). It makes we wonder how accurate the rest is.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  118 reviews
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich, resplendent history of a city 17 Sep 2013
By Bluestalking Reader - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I'm partly Dutch by descent, which is why I opted to receive a review copy from Amazon, when given my choice of Vine products. So I'm predisposed toward the subject. But then, anyone who buys the book would feel the same, so there goes my justification for a disclaimer. If you're reading this, you're interested in Amsterdam. Now that we've established that bit of obviousness...

If you're coming into this book with little or no knowledge of Amsterdam you will be blown away by the depth of the detail, the interesting insights and lesser-known history. If you're coming into this book with some knowledge of this city, you'll find the same.

All history should be written this well. It's so approachable and to some extent personal as historian Shorto has spent several years of his life in the city. The prose is smooth; it flows. It's a delight to read, so fascinating I hated putting it down. I even read it in the bathtub and I'm not a bathtub reader. And that is actually a positive point, though it sounds a little silly. Okay, a lot silly.

Reading this book you'll learn what makes the Dutch such determined people, how they managed to turn boggy land into a city, how many things they pioneered - including the stock market. The Dutch East India Company is covered in detail, as well as the tulip craze and how all that nuttiness came about. You'll meet Rembrandt, learning the connection between his life and that of other Dutch names of note. The most brilliant part is how Shorto weaves it all together, how he connects all the dots, explaining all the interrelationships between people you'll have heard of, by way of people you probably haven't.

I enjoy nonfiction, and love history, so I read the genre consistently and know it fairly well. Russell Shorto has, with this book, become a great favorite of mine. I'll read his other book on the Dutch - The Island at the Center of the World - and as much of his other writing as I can. He's fantastic. In this book you'll find the politics, the arts, how and why the Dutch are what they are today. Brilliant!

My highest recommendation.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Getting My Amsterdam 'Fix'! 3 Sep 2013
By F. S. L'hoir - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Hard-Core History 23 Aug 2013
By James Ellsworth - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
And not just intellectual history either. I feel it is more a 'personal history.' Russell Shorto offers the average reader (already an above-average mind)a very smoothly written and honestly felt piece about Amsterdam. The author's point of view is: here is the city where I and my family live now; so how did it get to be (partly) like this? On a bike ride to visit with and to conduct a series of interviews with an elderly survivor of NAZI occupation and transportation of Dutch Jews to a death camp in Germany, Shorto introduces the reader to a horrifying time when Amsterdam was not a haven capable of protecting its citizens or its 'Liberalism.' This sub-theme in the book (it bookends the story)calls to mind that Ann Frank and her family and her Diary are forever bound into our consciousness of Amsterdam.

Shorto next offers a description of what this book will mean by 'Liberal.' To the Dutch, for most of their history as separate provinces or as one nation, 'Liberal' meant a 'looking the other way' when someone did something you wouldn't do yourself. The author ascribes tolerance as being born of necessity in an area that had weak feudal traditions and was 'free' to develop a cultural viewpoint that facilitated international and multi-cultural trade. Beginning with Charles V and William "The Silent" of the House of Nassau, the ebb and flow of Liberal culture is traced through the Reformation and Calvinism and onward to a contemporary Netherlands of assimilation of Dutch 'Indo' populations of mixed ethnicity from Indonesia to the legalization of practices such as use of marijuana and the regulated sale of sex. Throughout history, the Dutch have tried to 'look the other way' as much as possible but there have been times, as with the Anabaptists, when toleration was stretched beyond the breaking point. That is the 'history' that is the subject of this book. In its rise to be a world commercial power, 'tolerant' institutions' and 'modern' commercial practices were spread by settlement or colonization to far-flung parts of the world. Chapter Seven of the book, 'Seeds of Influence', presents a view of those times. Chapters Eight and Nine move the story along in time and pick out modern forms of liberal action: emancipation and education of women and attitudes toward gay and lesbian people and an updating of political conditions. Cursory attention is given to a new era in Dutch commerce as exemplified by Royal Dutch Shell petroleum and by Phillips, the electronics giant. By the end of the book, in a general way we have come to learn quite a bit about Amsterdam and a reasonable amount about the Netherlands.

Shorto also offers readers a sizable Bibliography for further reading and there is a section of end notes, organized by chapter, to clarify or amplify points that might be of interest. The content is basically presented as a chronology once one gets into the book but 'centuries', 'eras' and 'dates' are presented more as guideposts to the 'flow' of the story than as fixed points to remember. In 318 pages, then, much is covered but so vast a subject and period of time has to result in a high degree of selection of what and who to feature.

Most readers will likely find some things of interest here and there throughout the work. I like Amsterdam and have visited it and read about its history and culture. I only found this book to be of moderate interest, partly for the almost casual or discursive nature of its selectivity.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Proud to be Dutch! 1 Dec 2013
By Seeker - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Being Dutch by birth, I cannot help swell with pride at the reminder that my country (and this city) exerted so much influence on the modern world, and the free-thought movement. Mr. Shorto has done an excellent job, and writes in an engaging non academic manner. A must read for all with some Dutch blood!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gedogen! 17 Dec 2013
By Greg Polansky - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Having fallen in love with Russel Shorto's 'The Island at the Center of the World', and greatly enjoying his articles in the NYT, I was eagerly anticipating this book. And I was not disappointed.

In this relatively short history, Shorto weaves his own personal experiences of Amsterdam with the history of the city. In particular, as he shows how Liberalism (note the capital L here: this is Liberalism in the classic sense - personal freedom, economic freedom, individual freedoms and individual rights, etc - not in the American political spectrum sense) defined the city he convincingly relays how the city's unique geography allowed Liberalism to grow and thrive. In particular, the concept of 'gedogen' - hard to translate, but sort of like toleration of what is illegal by not enforcing laws against something - seems to have defined the city of Amsterdam from early on.

Beginning with the miracle of the wafer, Amsterdam grew from such humble beginning. Yes, around a wafer. But hey, it was a different century and rather than tourists flocking to museums, they instead flocked to religious items. So why not a wafer? Shorto then shows how fishing and shipping enriched the city before getting to the best part of the book - the Golden Age of Amsterdam of the 17th century. Probably the highlight of the book for me because this was the age that would then go on to influence New Amsterdam, and through New Amsterdam the whole of the US. Plus there was an excellent section on how the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 in England was actually a true invasion, despite what British historians may have led you to believe since.

The rest of the book continues with the story of Amsterdam, and while it is all fascinating, especially how Amsterdam battled with Lisbon for control of global trade, it's not as interesting to me as the 17th century. Although there are some great sections using oral history. By the end of the book, you will want to visit Amsterdam. And when a history book about a city makes you want to visit it, that counts as a success in my eyes.
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