Russell Shorto

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Monthly Archives: August 2013


Monday, August 19, 2013

I’ve been pleasantly deluged with reactions to my Sicily piece in Sunday’s Times. I don’t know that it’s possible to give a blanket response, except to say thanks, but one question appeared in a lot of replies, which I can answer. Why, since I know that my great-grandfather’s last name was Sciotto, don’t I change it back to that? I considered that years ago, and concluded that my name as it stands represents who I am as an American of Sicilian extraction. It shows the history. Beyond that, I’ll start posting some of the reactions here, since there seems to be a common thread of Sicilian-Americans who have or would like to retrace their family history, and people might like to see what others are up to. Here are the first few: I immensely enjoyed the NY Times piece “Digging Up Your Roots in Sicily”. I made a similar pilgrimage to a tiny village in the province of Liguria, aptly named Buto because it perches on a butte in the foothills above Siestri Levante. Of the sixty direct descendants of my grandparents who emigrated from Buto to San Francisco in 1912, ten have made the reverse journey to Buto. My … Continue reading


Sunday, August 18, 2013

As a writer I’ve always tended to seek out origins. My first book, about the search for the historical Jesus, was an attempt to get at the “real” story behind my Catholic upbringing. After living in Manhattan for several years, I wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” a book about the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, the seed from which New York City grew. Recently I began considering my family. Among its manifold curiosities is our last name. People always ask me about the derivation of “Shorto.” The story I’d heard as a child was that after my illiterate Sicilian great-grandparents settled in my hometown of Johnstown, Pa., they enrolled their children in school and said the name aloud: Sciotto. And the administrator wrote it as he or she heard it. Continue reading my travel story in the August 17, 2013 issue of the New York Times.

PW’s prepublication review of “Amsterdam”…

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

“Shorto conjures the anything-goes spirit of contemporary Amsterdam, with its pot-smoking and red-light districts, from the city’s fascinating past as a major port city. Amsterdam, to Shorto, was not only the first city in Europe to develop the cultural and political foundations of what we now call liberalism—“a society focused on the concerns and comforts of individuals,… run by individuals acting together,” and tolerant of “religion, ethnicity, or other differences”—but also an exporter of these beliefs to the rest of Europe and the New World. Shorto composes biographical sketches of these originators (Rembrandt, Spinoza) and exporters (John Locke, the Dutch East India Company) as he guides readers on a narrative tour of Amsterdam’s intellectual history, its rise from a sleepy site of religious pilgrimage to the center of a trading empire into the present. Shorto’s examination of Dutch tolerance also focuses on its failures, including an examination of collaboration with Nazi occupiers during WWII, and its current struggle to integrate its “immigrant underclass” into a more egalitarian multicultural life. Shorto’s brilliant follow-up to his previous book on Dutch Manhattan (The Island at the Center of the World) is an expertly told history of a city of new, shocking freedoms and … Continue reading

Kirkus – First Pre-Publication Review of “Amsterdam”…

Saturday, August 10, 2013

AMSTERDAM [STARRED REVIEW!] A History of the World’s Most Liberal City Author: Russell Shorto Review Issue Date: August 1, 2013 Online Publish Date: July 15, 2013 Publisher:Doubleday Pages: 368 Price ( Hardcover ): $28.95 Publication Date: October 22, 2013 ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-385-53457-4 Category: Nonfiction The dynamic historical account of a vibrantly complex European city and the legacy of social, political and economic liberalism it bequeathed to the Western world. Legalized prostitution, lax drug laws and a generous social welfare system have given Amsterdam a reputation for being “the most liberal place on earth.” But as cultural historian Shorto (Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason, 2008, etc.) points out, it is ultimately incorrect to say that the concept of liberalism itself, which “involves a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights…for everyone,” was born there. It is instead more correct to say that the ideas that inspired those thinkers who gave form to what liberalism was—John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, among others—arose from the peculiar set of geographical and cultural circumstances that attended the birth of Amsterdam. Since the Netherlands is “one vast river delta,” Dutch cities like Amsterdam came … Continue reading