Wednesday, 9 September 2015

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

This is one of my three holiday reads, from recent holiday to Amsterdam & Paris. I started each of the three books either just before or while on holiday, but finished none of them. Holidays after all are about more than just reading. This was the last one to start, and I began (or picked up where the sample left off anyway) when in Paris the day before catching the train to Amsterdam. Part of the reason for picking it was to learn something about the history of Amsterdam to better enjoy the visit, so thought I should really start before I got there! I consequently read this straight through, and didn't put down for another book.

Anyway, on to the book. This is a narrative history book, relating the story of Amsterdam from its founding in medieval times right through to the present day. It's also an exploration of the concept of liberty, which Amsterdam has for much of its existence stood at the forefront of. If this sounds a bit high brow and technical, don't worry. While the author shares some interesting views on this, it doesn't get in the way of the main event of telling the history of Amsterdam. It just gives it a subtle extra flavour, and adds a bit of weight to the book. The story of the city it told chronologically, picking up all of the important stuff along the way, and offers us portraits of some of the most significant figure in its history. The main chunk of the book covers Amsterdam's struggle against its Spanish Catholic overlords in the 16th century, and the city's subsequent golden age in the 17th century when it was arguably the richest and most powerful city in the world. This is probably the best part of the book, but the section of Amsterdam during and either side of World War 2 is also excellent. The story of Anne Frank is of course covered, but we also get the story of another girl, Frieda Menco, who used to play with Anne and her sister, who survived the war and recently told her story to the author of this book.

The author has an insider-outsider viewpoint which I find quite useful - insider knowledge but maintaining an outside perspective to properly be able to see the bigger picture. He's an American, but has lived in Amsterdam for a number of years. He's obviously undertaken a lot of research, but also conducted in depth interviews with Amsterdamer's which really add significantly to the last part of the book.

As well as this one, his other major book which was written a few years earlier is 'The Island at the Center of the World', a brilliant narrative of history of the founding and early history of New York (originally New Amsterdam as it was founded by the Dutch). Despite covering a much wider time frame, 'Amsterdam' is a significantly smaller book in size and scope. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the author's previous work, but is still a great read.

In conclusion, this is a great book if you are looking to visit Amsterdam or interested in its history at all. There are few cities that can lay claim to the historical significance or legacy of Amsterdam, and its achievement is all the more amazing because of the short time in which it did it. The smaller stories in the book are excellent too, my favourite probably being the story about the heroics and ingenuity of Dutch resistance members during World War 2, particularly Wally Van Hall.

Really recommended, 9/10.

And Amsterdam itself? Would I recommend that as a place to visit? Well that depends. If you really like your history then definitely. It has amazing history, beautiful architecture and a lovely canal network with great boat tours. It has its seedy side too, which you can't help stumbling over from time to time (okay quite a lot really), so you'd need to not be worried about that if you were going to enjoy the city. It's got great museums, including the Amsterdam Museum which is all about the history of the city, and lots of old canal houses which you can look round.


You don't even need to go round any museums to appreciate the history though, just by walking round seeing all the old buildings will do that for you. Look out for the pictoral signs on building facades, there's lots of really interesting ones.

Final words of advice? If you are going to visit Amsterdam, be careful not to get run over by bikes - they are everywhere (they have their own dedicated cycle lanes which look a lot like pavements - be warned). Oh and take this book with you, and you'll be wowing your friends and family with fascinating tales of Amsterdam's history.