Book review: 'Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City' by Russell Shorto

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:43pm

Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City
by Russell Shorto
4 stars

Janet Maslin

One of the best-known fables about the Dutch is the story of the boy who wards off disaster by putting his finger in a leaking dike. As Russell Shorto points out in his new history of Amsterdam, this tale was made up by an American (Mary Mapes Dodge, who had never been to the country when she wrote her 1865 book, Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, in which the account of the boy's wondrous feat appears). And it is a nonsensical story in the Netherlands, where heroism is often a communal effort.

It's fitting that Shorto uses Amsterdam's water problems as a prime example of what co-operative effort can accomplish. About 1,000 years ago, inhabitants of the region began building dikes to keep out the sea and cut water channels into peat bogs. They "thus set off a never-ending struggle against nature, one that continues today".

This book's story of how Amsterdam became an ascendant port city leads naturally into accounts of the Dutch East India Company's thriving global trade and the city's development of an early stock exchange as an offshoot of its new wealth.

There is a chronology of the Netherlands' rulers and military commanders, such as William the Silent. There is the 80-year-war with Spain, and the burst of growth that followed.

There is the legacy of religious persecution that may have made Amsterdam so famously tolerant, although that argument hits a snag when it comes to Nazi occupation. Shorto, who also has an eye for striking statistics, points out the wide margin by which the country led Europe in the percentage of its Jews killed.

Amsterdam's most famous and tourist-friendly regulations involve prostitution and marijuana, the lax marijuana laws prompting more quotable statistics.

Other major sections in this enjoyably crowded book address eclectic Amsterdam architecture and the importance of Dutch art. Shorto favours the trick of describing a young man's early history while withholding the fact that the young man is, say, Vincent van Gogh.

Shorto ultimately concludes that Amsterdam, despite its spectacular history, is a relatively "poky" place in today's era of global expansion. "It is small in population," he writes. "In terms of geographic area you could tuck the whole of it into a corner of Shanghai or Karachi and it probably wouldn't be noticed. It has no skyscrapers. But the advantage of a modest skyline is the seemingly limitless horizon."

The New York Times