Dutch Language Blog

Book Review: Amsterdam Posted by on Jan 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

The latest Dutch-related read is Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City which was first published in 2013. Shorto is an American writer who lived in Amsterdam for a few years and from what I can gather from the book, loved the city! According to his website, his writing is focused on narrative history.

Amsterdam bike. Photo by shelleylyn found on Flickr.com

Like the title says, this book is about the history of Amsterdam intertwined with experiences of Shorto’s life there. Overall, the book gives a fascinating account of how the city came about to be how we know it now. Within the story of Amsterdam is much of the story of the Netherlands as a whole because the development of one affected the other. The greatest characters of the Netherlands such as Willem van Orange, Spinoza and Rembrandt are also mentioned with a captivating account of their lives and how they changed the course of the country.

Russell Shorto is definitely a writer that pulls you into the story. For some people, hearing that a book is historical narrative sounds like a big yawn, however, Shorto’s narrative is easy to follow and captivating. As you read, you can really follow the lives of the average (and not so average) residents of Amsterdam.

The following video is of a book reading by Shorto:

What I like most about the book is the emphasis Shorto makes on how the Dutch became so tolerant. According to Shorto, the need for everyone to pull their weight to keep the country literally afloat meant that everyone’s individuality had to be respected. Tolerance for each other meant the survival of the group. This same principle was then transferred to Amsterdam in its tolerance to foreigners. Because individuality was tolerated in Amsterdam, the city as a whole was able to become a major influence in trade, philosophy, politics and multiculturalism. Although at times the recurrence of the theme seems a bit too romantic and idealist, Shorto makes this one of the underlying themes of the book.

Have any of you read this book? If so, what were your thoughts about it?

For those of you looking to learn more about the history of Amsterdam and/or wanting to practice listening in Dutch, the following is a short documentary-type video about the peak of the Netherlands and Amsterdam: The Golden Age.

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About the Author: Karoly Molina

Since I was a little girl, I was fascinated with languages and writing. I speak English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and a little bit of French. I am a writer, reader, language teacher, traveler, and a food lover! I now live in The Netherlands with my husband Riccardo, our cat Mona, and our dog Lisa, and the experience has been phenomenal. The Dutch culture is an exciting sometimes topsy-turvy world that I am happily exploring!


  1. Adam Muyt:

    Loved Shorto’s book, which came out a few months before my first visit to the Netherlands, adding immense insights into the way Dutch culture and society evolved and the influences it’s had on the broader world.
    And I’m soon heading to New York for the first time so couldn’t resist Shorto’s definitive history of New Amsterdam. Titled ‘Island at the Centre of the World’, it’s a terrific read, illuminating the many Dutch ghosts hanging around Manhattan. He suggests it was the Dutch, with their tolerance and drive and nose for trade, that set up much of the foundations for American society.

    • Karoly G Molina:

      @Adam Muyt Thank you Adam 🙂 I will make sure to pick up a copy of this book!

  2. Peter Simon:

    I’m very interested in this book now. The post is excellent, the videos also informative. I agree with Adam’s added understanding of American society as well.

    • Karoly G Molina:

      @Peter Simon I am glad you liked the post Peter! I highly recommend the book 🙂

  3. Tony:

    Tolerance is so often mistaken for Apathy.
    This liberal author as with all left wingers makes this mistake all through the book.
    The truth is that no-one in Holland cares about anything or anyone except themselves.
    This is the way they are brought up by uncaring parents and an education system that preaches self above all else.

    • Karoly G Molina:

      @Tony Thank you Tony for a contrasting point of view. While I do not agree with you, I will keep your opinion in mind to make sure mine isn’t biased (I am sure there is truth in both your statement and mine). I am especially intrigued with your first sentence: Tolerance is often mistaken for apathy. This is definitely something to ponder about.