Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto's website


Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Amsterdam” in Seattle

Sunday, October 27, 2013

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 … Continue reading


Is It Wrong to Make Someone Else’s Blog Post My Blog Post?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

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 … Continue reading


the mythical individual

Friday, October 25, 2013

It’s so satisfying when a reviewer pulls out of your book exactly what you hoped you were putting into it, and restates it in a way you never thought of: …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 … Continue reading


Best New Books of the Week (HuffPo/PW)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” by Russell Shorto (Doubleday) 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. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/best-new-books_n_4135892.html?ir=Books


“Amsterdam” reviews starting to roll in (pub date is tomorrow)…

Monday, October 21, 2013

A History of a City and Its Liberal Ideas by Ann Levin, Associated Press No guide to Amsterdam is complete without a mention of tulips, canals and legalized pot and prostitution. In Russell Shorto’s engaging new history of his adopted city, he, too, touches on these well-worn subjects. But Shorto is more interested in exploring how a city of 800,000 souls — roughly the size of Columbus, Ohio — “has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has.” He argues that it has done so because over the centuries, through a combination of collective action and self-seeking individualism, Amsterdam has come to embody the most cherished ideals of Western democratic society, including tolerance, diversity and civil rights. When Shorto writes that Amsterdam may well be the birthplace of liberalism, he doesn’t mean “liberal” in the sense that it’s used in American political debate. He’s referring to “a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights, and not just for oneself but for everyone.” He means liberalism in its original sense of “free,” from the Latin word liber. Shorto’s attempt to understand Amsterdam feels urgent, in part because he recognizes that these values are threatened today. “While … Continue reading


The Best Possible Cover

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gary Gutting in todays’ New York Times: Many liberal Catholics have been encouraged by Pope Francis’s comments about sexual ethics in a recent interview… Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone. These are welcome as far as they go, but they fall far short of the reform needed if the church is to fulfill its fundamental aim of bearing witness to the truth. I’d go considerably farther than that. I’d say that this Pope is potentially the best possible cover for the reactionary forces within the Vatican. The Catholic Church hierarchy is committed to its hidebound stances on sex and sin. How better to shield itself from criticism than to have a front man who pays lip service to the political correctnesses of the day? That doesn’t mean that Francis himself is only acting; but it could mean that his sincerity is a useful screen.


Just Part of the Microbial Stream

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Michael Pollan retweeted a remarkable blog post by Jeff Leach about his time following tribal hunters in Tanzania. They capture a zebra, kill it, gut it, then wash their hands with the contents of the stomach. Then: While I was fascinated by the microbe-laden stomach contents being used as hand scrubber – presumably transferring an extraordinary diversity of microbes from the Impala gut to the hands of the Hadza – I was not prepared for what they did next. Once they had cleaned out – by hand – the contents of the stomach (“cleaned” is a generous word), they carved pieces of the stomach into bite-sized chunks and consumed it sushi-style. By which I mean they didn’t cook it or attempt to kill or eliminate the microbes from the gut of the Impala in anyway. And if this unprecedented transfer of microbes from the skin, blood, and stomach of another mammal wasn’t enough, they then turned their attention to the colon of the Impala. Leach says the hunters do this with all animals: they immerse themselves in the microbial stew. He goes on to say: Rather than think of ourselves as isolated islands of microbes, the Hadza teach us that … Continue reading


On Being Anne Frank

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thank you, Gypsy Scholar, for the thoughtful read: Russell Shorto on Liberty and Individuality In the guise of a travel article, “The Ghosts of Amsterdam” (NYT, September 27, 2013), Russell Shorto pens a lovely, meditative piece on the intimate connection between liberty and individuality, concluding with thoughts on the symbolic meaning of Amsterdam triggered by a walk taken there by him and his daughter: Eva and I walked past the Anne Frank House . . . and found a canal-side cafe. Of course, our walk had been in part a typical parental ploy to instill something meaningful in a child. I asked Eva what she thought about it. She answered by saying, “Have you read Oliver Sacks? He’s amazing.” I instantly recognized the non sequitur as a classic teenage gambit to thwart parental pedagogy, but it still worked. I was disoriented: surely it hadn’t been that long ago that she was enthralled by “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Since when had she grown up to become a reader of neuroscientific case studies? Who was this person? Then I recalled something that Otto Frank had written. He was the only member of the family to survive the war. He’d been … Continue reading


Losing Our Religion

There’s a new poll out today that shows American Jews are secularizing at blinding speed. Before 1970, only 17% of Jews intermarried with non-Jews; today (excluding the Orthodox) that number is 71%. Two-thirds don’t belong to a synagogue. This nicely coordinates with recent data on American Christians. An extrapolation of the 2007 Pew Research poll suggests that 125 million Americans don’t attend any church. And even that number is skewed because the survey is based on those who say they attended at least once in the past year. Meanwhile, the most rapidly growing religious segment is the “nones”–those who identify with non-religious identification. Where only 2% said “none” in surveys in the 1950s, that is now 20%. For those who believe that religious affiliation has been more a force for harm than good, these are heartening numbers.