Amsterdam: A history of the World's Most Liberal City

Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City - Russell Shorto The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America - Russell Shorto Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason - Russell Shorto Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom - Russell Shorto


If you are going to visit Amsterdam and you love history and you only have time to read one book before you arrive, then read this one! Mr Shorto writes narrative history and picks out a number of lives of people who lived in Amsterdam and uses their lives to illustrate his take on the city's story. He not only researches the lives of the important historical characters, but also insignificant people of the time, sketching a life from old documents and registers adding colour and making otherwise dry topics personal. He takes this right into the present day with interviews of still living Amstedammers who have left their mark on the city. 


The main theme of the book is liberalism and what that means in different times and contexts. In very broad strokes, what started, in Amsterdam, as economic liberalism, trade is king, expanded over the years to become social liberalism. An example of this is how the relative freedom of the press in the early 1600s, attracted people who could not publish elsewhere, like Galileo and most importantly, Rene Descartes. Descartes ideas were published, inspiring Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jewish Amsterdammer, to learn Latin to understand Descartes writing. Spinoza applied Descartes principles to everything! Those principles took root, guiding people like Eduard Douwes Dekker who in turn inspired such amazing figures such as Aletta Jacobs. 


As a tour guide I absolutely lapped up this book and read it a few times and even summarised it as the themes in the book lend themselves strongly to walking tours. I rather cheekily asked Mr Shorto on a tour that I had created based on the themes in his book and he accepted. I must say it was quite daunting having him on a small group tour as I am a huge fan of all of his work. He liked it I'm relieved to say and even furnished me with a quote to use when advertising Amsterdam private tours


“Mark Law is hands-down the best tour guide of Amsterdam. And I don’t say that just because he uses my book. Honestly! He invited me to join a tour based on my book and, lo and behold, I learned a lot from it. He wove together my research and his own nook-and-cranny knowledge of Amsterdam. The result is lively, funny, and deeply historical.


In the years that have followed I have read many of the books that Mr Shorto drew from when writing his book. What stands out to me, is his ability to draw out the most interesting points of a resource and package them entertainingly into his own work.


Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City is a highly readable romp through Amsterdam's inspiring history. But there's more!


There are 3 other books by Russell Short that fit together. The 4 books were published in the order below and, whilst they are all good stand alone reads, I recommend reading them in the order published.  The Dutch Manhattan book reads like an action film, essential reading for anyone with ann interst in New York history. Descartes Bones traces the roots of the radical Enlightenment / French Revolution and Revolution Song, the moderate Enlightmentment as played out in the American Revlution.


The Island at the Centre of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (New York, Doubleday, 2004)


Descartes Bones (New York, Random House, 2008)


Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City (New York, Doubleday, 2013)


Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom. (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)