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Amsterdam: A History of the World's…

Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City (2013)

by Russell Shorto

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Amsterdam certainly doesn't need any introduction: being one of the centers of enlightenment, intellectual freedom, scientific revolutions, and fine arts, the city deservedly attracts tourists from all over the world every year.

If you want to learn what made Amsterdam as we know it, and place it in its historical context, tying things to tumultuous religious-political wars and tragedies, as well as the effect of its unique geography on its collective mentality towards community organization, this book does the job very well.

On the other hand, you have to bear with the author and its US style of shoving "liberalism" down your throat with enthusiasm. If you can get past that, you'll have a better, contextualized understanding of this unique piece of world, and how its pioneering qualities inspired more famous parts of our world. ( )
  EmreSevinc | Mar 4, 2018 |
Excellent book, worth reading if you're interested in European history and politics.
  skulli99 | Mar 4, 2018 |
Don’t be fooled by the subtitle. This is a headlong, breathless history of Amsterdam. But the heart of its project is global and abstract. Shorto, an American living in the city, explores the origin of the concept of liberalism in Amsterdam. Liberalism here is roughly defined as an ideology centering around the priority of the individual and the core value of human freedom. Shorto wants to convince us that these ideas originated in Amsterdam’s early history, were honed and amplified during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, and then bequeathed to the world where they have played a outsized role ever since. However persuasive this considerable claim – and it succeeds in no small measure – the book takes the reader on a ride that is not confined to the intellectual. This history of an idea is the backbreaking work of a community reclaiming land from the sea, the voyage over distant seas to the riches of exotic Java, and the tolerance that allowed the Jewish Baruch Spinoza to dwell and blaspheme as a minority in the Protestant city.
Shorto tells a foundational story about the origins of liberalism in Amsterdam: the struggle to reclaim land from the sea required communal effort unlike conditions elsewhere in Europe. Reclaimed land became the property of individuals who were free to rent, buy or sell it. The sense of communal affiliation was enhanced, and individualism simultaneously strengthened. Feudalism thus never became entrenched in the Netherlands as the dominant economic form. I will tell you what Shorto does not: the story is a myth, with elements of reality. I am not qualified to weigh in on the proportions of the two. Scholars differ in accounting for the economic circumstances of Amsterdam from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. But it is an effective story, one that makes for a coherent, if fanciful, narrative of what came after.
The rest of the book is a colorful romp through the last four centuries in Amsterdam through the lens of liberalism and the emergence of the individual. The exploits of the Dutch East India Corporation which enriched the city; the development of a stock market which afforded the small-fry the chance to get a piece of the action; Rembrandt’s depiction of the primacy of private individual experience; Spinoza’s revolutionary rejection of religious authority and the grounding of belief in human reason, something over which institutions hold no monopoly. And we are treated to the author’s account of the dissemination of these values through a variety of channels. Notable among these are a “Dutch-invasion” account of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its subsequent influence on the world through emerging English power; and the Dutch role in the establishment of New York and the spread of its ideas to the New World.
I can quibble over the details. Shorto has fallen in love with Amsterdam, and has a tendency to romanticize it. How much of Dutch tolerance and liberalism is deeply-held principle and how much expediency? What about the dark side of capitalism, if Amsterdam is its parent? But this is a colorful tale well-told. One cannot but emerge impressed with the dynamism of the story, and the power of the city’s history and influence. ( )
  stellarexplorer | Dec 28, 2017 |
Amsterdam is one of my favorite places to visit. I enjoyed this book. It was a wonderful read on the history of this city. ( )
  Montanagirlsclub | Oct 31, 2017 |
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Tourists know Amsterdam as a picturesque city of low-slung brick houses lining tidy canals; student travelers know it for its legal brothels and hash bars; art lovers know it for Rembrandt's glorious portraits. But the deeper history of Amsterdam, what makes it one of the most fascinating places on earth, is bound up in its unique geography--the constant battle of its citizens to keep the sea at bay--and the democratic philosophy that this enduring struggle fostered. Amsterdam is the font of liberalism, in both its senses. Tolerance for free thinking and free love make it a place where, in the words of one of its mayors, "craziness is a value." But the city also fostered the deeper meaning of liberalism, one that profoundly influenced America: political and economic freedom. Amsterdam was home not only to religious dissidents and radical thinkers but to the world's first great global corporation. In this effortlessly erudite account, Russell Shorto traces the idiosyncratic evolution of Amsterdam, showing how such disparate elements as herring anatomy, naked Anabaptists parading through the streets, and an intimate gathering in a sixteenth century wine tasting room had a profound effect on Dutch--and world--history. Weaving in his own experiences of his adopted home, Shorto provides an ever surprising, intellectually engaging story of Amsterdam from the building of its first canals in the 1300s, through its brutal struggle for independence and its golden age as a vast empire, to its complex present in which its cherished ideals of liberalism are being questioned anew.--Publisher description.… (more)

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