Russell Shorto
Amsterdam by Russell Shorto


A History of the World's Most Liberal City

Rich and eventful…[A] book that easily fuses large cultural trends with intimately personal stories.”

The New York Times

An endlessly entertaining portrait of the city of Amsterdam and the ideas that make it unique, by the author of the acclaimed Island at the Center of the World

This book is about a place. And it’s about an idea… Liberalism has many meanings, but in its classical sense it is a philosophy based on individual freedom. History has long taught that our modern sensibility comes from the eighteenth century Enlightenment. In recent decades, historians have seen the Dutch Enlightenment of the seventeenth century as the root of the wider Enlightenment. And at the center of this sits the city of Amsterdam. The city today is infamous for its permissiveness. But the sex-and-drugs sense of liberalism relates back to the wider, grander sense of the word. There is a connection between the city that spawned Spinoza and the city where John and Yoko came to hold their Bed-In for Peace.

Put another way, Amsterdam is the cradle of liberalism. And we modern western people, whatever our political persuasions, are all liberals.

Shorto is a marvelous picture painter in words…And that makes Amsterdam a pleasure to savor on many levels.”

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…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 the tough-minded people that developed them.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

[An] engaging new history…it brims with the sights, smells and sounds of a nearly thousand-year-old bustling, mercantile city.”

Associated Press

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

Shorto is an excellent storyteller and rootler of strange facts, and Amsterdam should be issued as standard kit for anyone visiting the city who is not entirely corroded by vice.”

The Guardian

Amsterdam is a small place that casts a big shadow. As Russell Shorto shows in this smart, elegant book, culture and geography have conspired to thrust the city into the midst of our day’s most important debates. How much individual freedom can we live with? What are the limits of acceptance? How can people from different parts of the world — people with different beliefs, backgrounds and values — coexist in our increasingly globalized cities? Not only is this a wonderfully readable account of the city that Shorto has come to call home, it is also a history of how the Dutch invented — and sometimes failed to live up to — today’s concepts of liberty and tolerance.”

— Charles C. Mann, author of 1491 and 1493

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…Shorto’s examination of Amsterdam’s colorful history offers important insights into the promise and possibility of enlightened liberalism. Vigorous, erudite and eminently readable.”

Kirkus Reviews

Most urban histories focus on bricks and mortar; not this one. Russell Shorto writes engagingly about how a city can engender ideas — order, tolerance, comfort, egalitarianism, entrepreneurship — and in turn be shaped by them. Amsterdam argues convincingly that Western liberalism has been greatly influenced by this small, modest, crazy-yet-conventional place.”

— Witold Rybczynski, author of How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit

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

Russell Shorto loves Amsterdam, I love this book.”

— Job Cohen, former mayor of Amsterdam

Russell Shorto’s luminous book is a riveting history of one of the world’s most remarkable cities. It is also an entertaining history full of deftly drawn characters and intoxicating ideas which have made Amsterdam the birthplace of liberalism in its many and shifting incarnations.”

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor & Publisher, The Nation

This is a wonderful history of a great and fascinating city. Shorto is a gifted writer, and the rich and multi-layered story he tells of Amsterdam — its rise as a mercantile power, its politics and culture, its famously tolerant ways, and the tensions generated by these over the centuries — reveals much about contemporary American society as well, since many of our values and aspirations are an inheritance from this most liberal center of the Dutch Golden Age.”