“Amsterdam” by Russell Shorto is this week’s book of the week on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS.
“Amsterdam” by Russell Shorto is this week’s book of the week on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS.
Artist Guy Laramee turns books into landscapes. If you’re looking for an insight into the state of the physical book, his rendering of the Encyclopedia Britannica is the ultimate, given that it stopped printing in actual books last year. Otherwise, you can just ponder.
Dear Pico Iyer,
Given that every writer, with the release of a new book, hopes and prays for the NYTBR to deem it worthy of a review, and given that so few real book publications are left out there–given, in short, that so much is riding on this one outlet–why be so malicious and disingenuous in your review of my book today?
I don’t mind mixed reviews. I don’t even mind largely negative reviews if they are thoughtful and come from a particularly reasoned perspective. But why create a cartoon straw-man version of the thesis of my book and then proceed to show what a silly, cartoonish creation it is? Why willfully ignore all the nuance and qualification I gave to my thesis about Amsterdam’s role in the rise of liberal thought? Why pull quotes out of context and line them up in such a way as to make the whole thing seem ridiculous and shrill? In the back of my mind when I write book reviews is this notion: If the book is a thoughtful, earnest effort to engage with its subject, the review, however critical it might be, should reflect that.
And why pile on other maliciousnesses, including ones that border on the absurd, such as the criticism that “Shorto almost never looks outside Amsterdam and the Netherlands.” Surely a reader of a book about Amsterdam would expect that that would largely be the subject; and besides that, the book does indeed range around the globe in tracking the city’s rise and influence.
Whatever the answers to these questions, I wish you a different experience with your own next book. May it get the reception it deserves.
AMSTERDAM: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST LIBERAL CITY
By Russell Shorto
Finally, this delightfully eccentric history looks at Amsterdam. For many, the first thing that comes to mind is marijuana, but Shorto ably demonstrates how Amsterdam is generally more conservative and far more influential than the lax drug laws (or rather, lax enforcement of drug laws) imply. Amsterdam is truly the birthplace of democracy and specifically liberalism that is such a feature of the US and New York City in particular. Ranging over centuries, Shorto captures everything from his own connection to the city to the excitement of Spinoza’s bold thinking. With vivid tales from history, he shows how and why Amsterdam became such a unique and fertile ground for capitalism as we know it. (For one thing, it was literally created out of swampland by pounding log after log into the ground until a base was formed that could be built in. God made the world but man made Amsterdam and that land built by sweat wasn’t already controlled by a monarchy or other ruling class.) Shorto brings to life a survivor of the Nazis who played with Anne Frank as a child, the truly eccentric characters that proved “crazy” is a virtue in this society to the Amsterdam of today. Eye-opening and entertaining, it’s popular history of the best sort.
My ‘Amsterdam’ made the Seattle Times’ list of the best books of 2013:
“Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” by Russell Shorto (Doubleday). This finely spun history of Amsterdam explores both a city and an idea, as American author Shorto, a marvelous picture painter in words who’s lived in Amsterdam for five years, recounts how the city’s brand of “liberalism,” with its maverick blend of freedom, tolerance and strangely skeptical/conservative pragmatism, originated. — Michael Upchurch
Review of “Amsterdam” in the Times (UK):
“Amsterdam is a pokey place”, Shorto admits, but in comparison with bigger, brasher cities, it has traditionally been a testing ground for freedom, a beacon for political liberalism, religious tolerance and social equality. It has also always been a city long in its cultural and artistic reach. On the other hand … Shorto’s tender, truthful love letter to his adopted city admits that it has recently had a bit of trouble on all these fronts and grants that casual visitors translate them into free love and legal highs when they’re running about from one licensed brothel and hash bar to another. Even a mayor of Amsterdam has said “craziness is a value.” From the 1300s, when the first canals were constructed, the city has come to terms with the sea from which it derived its power and riches. Shorto’s lively book is true to its salty, contradictory character.
Russell Shorto’s ‘Amsterdam’: the roots of a tolerant city
Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” looks at the history, politics and spirit of what is arguably the world’s most liberal city.
By Michael Upchurch
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City’
by Russell Shorto
Doubleday, 354 pp., $28.95
This finely spun and illuminating history of Amsterdam explores both a city and an idea. And writer Russell Shorto is well-positioned to investigate both.
He’s an American who has lived in Amsterdam for the last five years.
He’s also the author of “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America,” a book examining how American diversity and a significant portion of American freedoms had their roots in the colonial settlement on Upper New York Bay more than 400 years ago.
“Amsterdam,” in a sense, picks up where “Island” left off, by giving a millennium-long overview of the country that was the source for the values of colonial New Amsterdam. Shorto has an ardent appetite for understanding all he can about his new home, and he’s especially alert to how the physical fabric of Amsterdam’s city center holds the memories of figures and events from centuries past.
He starts 1,000 years ago with the physical creation, through drainage and dam building, of the land where Amsterdam is now sited. He then moves through the Netherlands’ wars against Spanish rule and its years of religious strife.
He dwells on the Golden Age of the 1600s, when the ever-expanding city produced artists and thinkers who still astound us — Rembrandt and Spinoza, to name just two — and when, for better or worse, it invented the world’s first speculation-driven (and crash-susceptible) publicly traded stock market. During these glory days, when the city was a center of free speech that gave refuge to dissidents from other countries, an estimated half of all the books published in the world in the 17th century were published in the Netherlands.
Shorto also chronicles the decline of the city in the 18th century following destructive wars with Britain, the disastrous Nazi occupation during World War II and the turn the city took in the 1960s when, as one Dutch writer observes, “The counterculture became Amsterdam’s dominant culture.” The book brings things up to the present day, when debates over multiculturalism and assimilation are tense and unresolved, especially when it comes to the country’s Muslim immigrants.
Through all these glories, disasters and moments of cultural drift, the notion of what’s “liberal” (a word that over the centuries, Shorto notes, has been “mercilessly pulled in various directions”) was taking shape. Shorto cannily locates the conservative strain in Dutch character (“better to legalize and regulate an activity that will happen anyway”) that gave rise to what the rest of the world sees as the liberal door thrown wide open, whether you’re talking policies governing birth control, prostitution, gay rights or access to drugs.
Where did this hybrid of freedom, tolerance and pragmatism come from? Shorto believes there’s one answer: water. In working together to create land literally from scratch, the Dutch naturally developed a strong communal spirit. At the same time, that land belonged to its creators individually, in marked contrast to other European countries where feudal systems applied. One consequence: Far less of an aristocratic-authoritarian hand steered Dutch economic and government policy.
Shorto is a marvelous picture painter in words as he makes these points. And that makes “Amsterdam” a pleasure to savor on many levels.
Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.
PW Best Books 2013: ‘Amsterdam’ by Russell Shorto
Alex Crowley — October 24th, 2013
Leading up to the November 1st publication of PW’s Best Books of 2013, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:
Just a few days ago I finished reading Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, the last in a pile of potential best books through which I’d been making my way. Sometimes it’s clear from the off that a book is special, and that indefinable sense took hold quickly here. Shorto had an inkling of an idea, but it was one that needed exploring rather than something already concrete or definitive. So exploring we go…
Shorto’s premise, in brief, is that the growth of the city of Amsterdam mirrors the development of principles “of what we call liberalism: an ideology centered on beliefs about equality and individual freedom that is the foundation of Western society.” Why Amsterdam specifically? He notes how before there was even a notion of “Dutch” national identity, Hollanders (and Friesians and Gelderlanders and other provincials of the “Low Countries”) had developed a geographically-specific, collectivized existence quite different from the feudalism that defined the rest of Europe in the late Middle-Ages. They lived upon land reclaimed from drained bogs and marshes, the making of which not only demanded a great deal of unity, but also fostered a great sense of pride in its accomplishment. The land didn’t belong to a feudal lord, but was literally made by the people. It was their land to do with as they saw fit.
I’ll save you from any further spoilers and leave the remarkable development of the city of Amsterdam to Shorto, for he turns a somewhat obscure story of water management and international trade into an enthralling tale of radicalism and tolerance of strange and otherwise anathema beliefs and ideas. But what’s worth focusing on is Shorto’s notion of the collectivist origins of individualism, as it seems to be a notion missing from contemporary American notions of individualism. Here, for better or worse, we celebrate that “rugged” strain of the pioneer and the self-made “hero”. It’s a mythical conception at best and dangerously misguided at worst.
Whichever way you want to look at it it’s a major influence on our current American political climate in which a vocal segment of the population rails against any sort of collective endeavor whatsoever, labeling it “socialist” and un-American. Part of me feels that Shorto, who has adopted Amsterdam as his home and has lived there nearly a decade now, has sharpened his eye in this position of “exile”. He’s written us this lengthy letter saying, “Hey, here’s where your cherished ‘individualism’ comes from, and if you stop working together, you’re going to lose it.”
He shows quite clearly how, in the course of its development, when Amsterdammers lost their notion of the collective endeavor, they not only suffered the indignities of intolerant rulers, but lost their position in world affairs.*
We worry today, at least some of us do, that the economic system we enjoy is moving in an unsustainable direction, that it’s leading us back towards a manorial system of feudal lords (who own capital and the means of production) and serfs who scrape by through undignified labor that only serves to exalt the self-appointed lords.** I think it’s clear from Shorto’s work (and I don’t feel an ideological agenda on his part, that’s mostly my own interpretation) that if notions of individual liberty are to flourish, it requires a diverse, tolerant population of people who value unorthodox ideas and have space to take risks with those ideas.
And to finish, a core element of Shorto’s narrative revolves around his interview sessions with an elderly Amsterdam Jew and Holocaust survivor named Frieda Menco (she was a childhood acquaintance of Anne Frank and her story is just one of many amazing ones here). Frieda notes at the end that, “Life is absurd. It has no meaning. But it has beauty, and wonder, and we have to enjoy that.” Perhaps the promise of the liberalism that Amsterdam gave the world is that, in moving whole populations out of a medieval, feudalist worldview, in which archaic institutions defined the parameters and expectations of life, it hopes to provide people with the means to make meaning in their lives and experience the beauty and wonder the universe holds.
*He also shows that, from the beginning, capitalism was prone to extreme corruption and financial markets egregiously manipulated, necessitating constant regulation. Hey, they were just like us!
**Excuse me, my Marxism is showing.