Amsterdam happens to be the one city outside of my hometown that I have travelled to the most, especially over the last two decades.
I’ve explored it as a pre-teen with my parents, backpacked through it while in college, used it as a base on business trips across Europe, and holidayed in the city with my wife.
There is no doubt in my mind that Amsterdam is among my favourite cities in the world and not just because of the “benefits” the city so proudly offers.
Amsterdam is special because every time that I do visit it, it doesn’t fail to surprise me. The city is perpetually prepared with something unique, new, different, and has enough hidden secrets that are yet to be explored even by the most experienced of travellers.
At the time of requesting Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City from the publisher, I was under the impression that it was a travel book, since I had casually overlooked the subtitle. However, only a few pages in and the book instantly hooked me up by delving into the history of this amazing city that proved to be a travelogue of sorts, only that we journeyed through time.
Russell Shorto is quick to catch hold the interest of the reader by making the entire book more personal. From the very start it is obvious that the author has a keen interest in the city that he inhabits, as an outsider, and the book is not simply a re-telling of history.
Shorto’s writing style is brilliant in that his language is easily understandable and he takes just the right amount of time with each personality, topic and period of history keeping the pace of the book fast enough to keep the reader engrossed and entertained.
Moreover, he has a certain gift that allows him to make history, that many might find boring, exciting and entertaining as he plays around with the events that made the city of Amsterdam what it is today – a liberal melting-pot of cultures and thoughts – but simultaneously doesn’t spoon feed the reader by giving up everything all at once.
It is almost like the author consciously makes sure that the book doesn’t come across as academic and, dare I say, it is more of a thriller as we take a step-by-step approach from the birth of the city to its present day status, and how over the years liberalization has been the heart and soul of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is something that should appeal to not only history majors but even the casual traveler who wants to visit the city at some point of time (or like me have visited it numerous times before).
Starting with the origins, Shorto tries to provide the reader with enough proof that Amsterdam and Amsterdammers – people who have lived in the city over the years – have always been at the forefront of being liberal. Be it the very first inhabitants who made a dam and settled in the area, the miscellaneous individuals who believed in free thinking which eventually led to numerous “revolutions” over the years, or the effect this freedom had on art, medicine, trade, banking, and government; Shorto is quick to point out that the events that took place in Amsterdam are partly responsible for a number of liberties individuals now take for granted across the world.
Shorto presents his notion using varied examples both from the past and the present mentioning personalities like Rembrandt who was a major force in the world of art at the time he was alive and his legacy has lived thereon and Frieda Menco, a holocaust survivor, who used to know and live next to Anne Frank.
Amsterdam is a well researched and documented book that gives profound insight into the “history of the world’s most liberal city”.
Russell Shorto beautifully brings alive the tragedies and triumphs of the city and its people in this gem of a book and in doing so manages to educate the reader – like any good book should – but also excites them enough to take a trip to Amsterdam and explore it a little more; this time though, guided with all the historical knowledge that will make them view the city in a completely different light.
Although the book was sent for free by the publisher, the review and thoughts above are all my own doing.