Monday, October 14, 2013

Booknote: Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: a History of the World's Most Liberal City. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN: 9780385534574.

I wanted to like this book, but after a good start, the book went on to become a pretty dry history textbook. This is the story of a city that has embraced pragmatism and collaboration in order to make things work. What many Americans would find scandalous is pretty much ordinary here due to a tradition of liberalism and tolerance. It was not always that way; this has to grow over time out of conflict and compromises. The city grew as a trading city that attracted many different people, and when you have diversity, you have to collaborate and learn to respect differences in order to make things work.

All that sounds good and interesting, but the book itself at times was basically a drag to read. For instance, the third chapter on The Alteration just reminded me of one of those school textbooks full of dates and names, basically "such and such happened on such and such date and then so and so did this and that on that other date." It was not exactly engaging reading, which led me to skim large parts of the book seeking out some kind of interesting narrative. The parts of the author interviewing the old woman who was a Holocaust survivor and his descriptions of the city were about the only interesting parts of the book because they brought the city to life. The rest of the stuff where it was mostly textbook history made for some heavy reading. This was a pity because the city of Amsterdam seems to be such an interesting topic, but this book handled it in an average way. The book does include notes at the end as well as a bibliography for those interested in learning more.

Overall, if you need a textbook with a history of this city, this will probably do the job. If you want a pleasant read with a good narrative, this is not the book for you. Thing is I have read plenty of history books, and when done right, they can be a good reading experience. Good history writing can be done. Amsterdam was, unfortunately for me, pretty much an "OK" book.  Some examples of history books I would recommend, that I have read, include:

  • Arthur J. Magida, The Nazi Seance
  • Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom
  • Wayne Curtis, And a Bottle of Rum. 
  • Pretty much anything by Tom Standage. 
I am giving the book 2 stars out of 5. I did not dislike it, but it was no more than just "OK."

Disclosure note: This is the obligatory part where I tell you, in order to keep The Man happy, that I read this as an e-galley provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. 

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