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Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Go (Vintage) [Paperback]

Simon Schama
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Dec 1997 Vintage
Schama explores the mysterious contradictions of the Dutch nation that invented itself from the ground up, attained an unprecedented level of affluence, and lived in constant dread of being corrupted by happiness. Drawing on a vast array of period documents and sumptuously reproduced art, Schama re-creates in precise detail a nation's mental state. He tells of bloody uprisings and beached whales, of the cult of hygiene and the plague of tobacco, of thrifty housewives and profligate tulip-speculators. He tells us how the Dutch celebrated themselves and how they were slandered by their enemies.

"History on the grand scale...An ambitious portrait of one of the most remarkable episodes in modern history."--New York Times

"Wonderfully inclusive; with wit and intense curiosity he teases out meaning from every aspect of Dutch seventeenth-century life."--Robert Hughes

Product details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Random House International (1 Dec 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679781242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679781240
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 16.8 x 3.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,167,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and the prize-winning author of fourteen books, which have been translated into twenty languages. They include The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Landscape and Memory; Rembrandt's Eyes; the History of Britain trilogy and Rough Crossings, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written widely on music, art, politics and food for the Guardian, Vogue and the New Yorker. His award-winning television work as writer and presenter for the BBC stretches over two decades and includes the fifteen-part A History of Britain and the eight-part, Emmy-winning Power of Art. The American Future: A History appeared on BBC2 in autumn 2008.

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In high summer, Amsterdam smells of frying oil, shag tobacco and unwashed beer glasses. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schamer 18 May 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a very intensely researched academic book on the 17th century in Holland. It is a mine of information about just what made the Dutch what they were in the Golden Age. It covers all aspects of life in the Low Lands, history, religion, and the social and cultural context. He delves into art, business, gastromy, the penal system and the lives of children, amongst many others aspects of life in a country which had achieved success in regaining control over their own destinies.

It has an abundance of engravings, drawings and paintings which illustrate the people, places and customs of this fascinating period of Dutch history. It is very well annotated and has apendices.

For anyone interested in the history or art of the period it is an ideal book for enjoyable reading and reference.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a glutton's delight: too much, but oh so good 15 Dec 2003
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Massive and rambling, this is a history book without very finely drawn parameters. Schama, in my reading, wanted to cover the whole of a unique humanist culture - tolerant, intelligent, united by outside threats and not so much by Calvinism, and loosely structured in the era of absolutism. Focusing largely on paintings, prints, and writings, Schama offers a dazzling tour - the only trouble is, he seems to want to cover everything, and in the process the thread of narrative is lost from the very beginning in all the luscious details. While it is far better than Landscape and Memory in terms of unity of theme, there are long passages where it is near-impossilbe to tell where schama wants to go or what he really has to say.
At its best, the book offers lovely descriptions of such varied subjects as midwives, a brief fascination with beached whales, sex, diet, and charity, to name just a few. Many of the details along the way that need explanation are very briefly referred to, such as the 80-year War of independence from Spain, the difficulties with France as Louis XIV sought to expand his national territory, and the fabulous technological achievement of reclaiming much of the land from sea silt. The reader is treated to a grand political experiment along with the art. WHen I next go there, my experience will be immeasurably enriched.
However, at its worst, Schama appeared to me to be showing off his erudition, which is truly incredible and hence describing way way too much while not covering more of the basics. While this certainly points to the weaknesses of my own education in history, I doubt that many readers would know the mechanisms of Dutch economic superiority or why the Tulip mania could occur there and not in Antwerp or Venice. Instead, for example, Schama devotes over 30 pages to describing how much they ate, drank, and smoked referring innumerable obscure artists and interpreting all of the details of composition and subject matter in individual works. Yes, the prose is luminous, but why so awfully much??! It is really more of a multi-layered essay that will have to be re-read, if the reader has time and the will to invest in it.
Moreover, the end of the book is rushed and becomes less and less coherent at the moment when the reader is hoping that it will somehow get all tied together with an overview. The references in the last 100 pages become more obscure and recondite, requiring ever greater knowledge on the part of the reader as explanations disappear. And the epilogue did absolutely nothing for me and was for the most part incomprehensible.
Recommended with these caveats in mind. It is not for beginners! But the pleasures are many and it will change your view of Holland forever, as a great book should.
119 of 134 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Moral Vision of the Golden Age 11 Mar 2000
By James Paris - Published on
The other reviews I have read of this book are excellent, but I have decided to add my voice to show how the book has made me see history in a different light.
From the outset, Schama shows us a people whose success is based on a shared moral vision that utterly permeates their art and literature. In this country, we tend to be fixated on the art of England, France, and Italy, with a few side-trips to Germany, Russia, and the Orient. Before Schama, I thought of the Netherlands as an "auxiliary" country with no particular vision of its own.
I am delighted to have been proven wrong. THE EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES carries its theme like a mighty wave through hundreds of pages that read like a short essay. Here is this little country retrieved largely from the sea and mud, surrounded by powerful enemies who have repeatedly invaded and savaged it, and yet prevailing in its gentle and remarkably tolerant essence over the centuries. One does not survive this level of pain as a people unless one learns the lessons of cooperation, of tolerance, and of humor.
Several weeks ago, I found myself in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. My attention was riveted by a still life of cut-up fruit and seafood that I had seen before, but never stopped to examine. This time I did and looked more closely. Swarming or buzzing over the food were a small army of ants and other insects. The painters of the Golden Age were trying to teach us a lesson, gently, of the transitoriness of all that is good and beautiful. Life is good now, but the waters and the nations are building up for another assault.
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dutch History Brought to Life 30 Oct 2003
By Richard Sheridan - Published on
The Embarrassment of Riches explores the emergence of a distinctive Dutch cultural and commercial identity in the Netherlands over three generations during the seventeenth century in a comprehensive but impressively entertaining manner.
The author Simon Schama (1945 - ) is a well-known Oxbridge historian of English Jewish heritage, who was teaching at Harvard University when he wrote this work, but who is now based at Columbia University. His interests have included European and other social, cultural and art history, which is evident in the book's content and approach.
The book explains how rebellion against the Spanish empire's cultural and religious oppression was the primary cause of the developing independent Dutch collective personality and national patriotism. As a result a wealthy republic, which temporarily led the European world in trade, art and science, was successfully created out of a loose assortment of agricultural, fishing and shipping communities of diverse languages and religious denominations. However, the consequence of this prosperity was an embarrassing ethical dilemma that dominated and shaped Dutch culture, beliefs and practices. Thus, the book emphasises the paradoxical moral tension between worldly riches and homely piety.
In telling this story, Schama demonstrates an impressive capacity to inject life, vitality and insight into history. The Embarrassment of Riches displays signs of Schama's later increasing tendency to experiment imaginatively with historical analysis, to draw from other academic subjects, and to acknowledge awareness of the potential autobiographical and subjective bias in historical works. Yet in general, Schama combines a moderately conventional understanding of the study of history, such as the desirability of factual objectivity about past events, with an entertaining, innovative and creative approach to presentation.
Thus, the work is likely to be enjoyable and informative for both academic historians as well as the general reading public with an interest in the subject area, and is probably Schama's most engaging and accessible work (compared with, for example, his immense study Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, New York, 1989). Its argument is clearly defined and the sections of the book are well connected, with relevant references to documentary, pictorial and other resources, which while easily available do not distract from the flow of the text.
Schama's approach has been influenced by a number of historians or other social and cultural theorists, including in a manner characteristic of the growing subdiscipline of cultural history. In this regard, Schama has taken into account the wider cultural milieu including the social, political, economic, religious, moral, and other dimensions that can increase a reader's ability to understand the development of Dutch culture and wealth during the seventeenth century's `golden era'. The cultural perspective adopted is therefore much more far ranging than that confined to elite high `Culture', but rather promotes an inclusive democratization of the concepts of culture and history that suits the subject matter. A broad range of ordinary stories, people and events are included in order to promote a fuller comprehension of human life, experience and context.
However, such a broad approach increases the risk that the book's cultural themes and other issues are handled in a complex and awkward manner, or that factual errors, unbalanced emphases and lack of coherence mar the text. Nevertheless, with the exception of a possible overemphasis upon the province of Holland and the city of Amsterdam relative to other regions of the Netherlands, Schama has largely dealt with the material and issues deftly and competently.
Hence, the book has far more strengths than weaknesses in terms of sources, approach, content and presentation. The result is a profoundly enriching and eclectic portrait of the Dutch people and their emerging cultural identity, which brings the past to life.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm Tempted To Say: For Serious Scholars Only 21 Nov 2006
By Dai-keag-ity - Published on
During the three generations in which Holland was a global superpower---and one of the world's first economic superpowers at that---the Dutch people lived amid luxury and plentitude never before seen in northern Europe. Simon Schama's comprehensive study of this nation and period explores and details anything that could possibly be asked about the seventeenth-century Netherlands. This is a tough book to break into, to continue forward into once the task of reading it has begun, and its density will put many people off. It lacks the approachability of say a David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose book, but if someone wants serious information about its subject matter, there is no other more complete source that I know of than The Embarrassment of Riches. To read this book is to come away with an intimate knowledge of the Dutch Golden Age, and that's a high compliment.
34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tulipmania, Beached Whales, and Family Life 23 Jun 2000
By frumiousb - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've lived in the Netherlands for four years, and found this book to be both delightful and illuminating. Particularly for expats living here in the Netherlands, it sets a good base for understanding Dutch life-- but I think it's the sort of book that anyone who loves history would enjoy.
Embarassment of Riches focuses on almost every element of Dutch life-- political sphere, standard of living, role of women, treatment of children, moral taboos, legal standards, attitudes towards money and so much more. The writing is direct, stylish, and witty and the illustrations are well-chosen and clearly add to the point of the author.
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