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Russell Shorto

Amsterdam

Russell Shorto Amsterdam A History Of The World's Most Liberal City
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Series:

Vintage

Biographical note:

RUSSELL SHORTO is the bestselling author of Descartes' Bones and The Island at the Center of the World and is a contributing writer at the The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Amsterdam.

Country of final manufacture:

US

Excerpt from book:

CHAPTER 1

A Bicycle Trip

A day in Amsterdam begins with me leaving my apartment with my toddler son in my arms, strapping him into his seat between the handlebars of my bicycle, working his blocky little sneakered feet into the footpads, then setting off through the quiet, generally breezy streets of our neighborhood, which is called Oud Zuid: Old South. You could look at the work of any Dutch master for an idea of the morning light we cycle through. There is a white cleanness to it, a rinsed quality. It's a sober light, without, for example, any of the orange particulate glow you get from the Mediterranean sun. The houses of the neighborhood are three- or four-story brick buildings, all constructed in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when what was then a vigorously working-class city, one that still smelled of herring and roasting coffee beans, expanded rapidly around its central core of canals.

We cycle past street-level apartments, some of which, following a Dutch tradition that I like to think has to do with an ingrained commitment to openness, feature a central uncurtained window that puts the living room on public display, as if the family who lives there thinks its life is worthy of a museum. For a while I didn't understand why, when we reach the part of the route that has us riding alongside a canal, my son would break out in a series of high screeches. Then I realized Anthony was imitating the gulls that squeal as they do their crazy arcs and dives above the water.

We pass a few businesses. The bakery is usually scenting the morning air with cinnamon as we ride by. The display windows of the corner bicycle shop exhibit sturdy, gleaming new models, lately in an array of pastel tones, by Gazelle and Batavus, factories that have been turning out Dutch bicycles for a century. An open door to the right of the windows leads down to the basement, and the repair shop, whose interior I know too well. The grooves in the concrete at both sides of the stairway leading below are meant for bicycle tires.

Once in a while I will vary the route and turn down along the Hobbemakade, where on our right is a slightly forlorn-looking stretch of canal, with weeds growing up through the quayside where rickety houseboats are moored, and on the left are the remnants of one of the smallest and least noticeable of the city's several red light districts. De Wallen--Amsterdam's central red light district--is a sort of alternate-universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists but also by couples strolling arm in arm and even families. Here, by contrast, there are only three or four of the display windows that the city's licensed prostitutes sit in to exhibit themselves, in the midst of what is otherwise a residential street. I never get how customers would know to find them. Nevertheless, even in the morning there is often at least one woman on duty, wearing a swimsuit, sitting on a stool, smoking, or listlessly punching the keys of a cell phone. Sometimes she will wave at Anthony and give him a little smile. The other window might be empty save for a stool with a towel folded on the seat that is crumpled in a way that looks like it has been sat on. Such details--the crumpled towel, the bored look of the woman facing a long day of staring into the street, punctuated by short intervals of sex with strangers--bring the city's infamous tolerance of vice out of the realms of sensationalism and idealism and into the realm of the deeply mundane. As with any other place, "Rich and eventful...[A] book that easily fuses large cultural trends with intimately personal stories."
--The New York Times

"Shorto conjures the anything-goes spirit of contemporary Amsterdam, with its pot-smoking and red-light districts, from the city's fascinating past as a major port city...Shorto's brilliant follow-up to his previous book on Dutch Manhattan (The Island at the Center of the World) is an expertly told history of a city of new, shocking freedoms and the tough-minded people that developed them."
--Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[An] engaging new history...it brims with the sights, smells and sounds of a nearly thousand-year-old bustling, mercantile city."
--Associated Press

"Shorto is a marvelous picture painter in words...And that makes Amsterdam a pleasure to savor on many levels."
--The Seattle Times

“The story of a great city that has shaped the soul of the world. Masterful reporting, vivid history—the past and present are equally alive in this book.”
James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

"Shorto is an excellent storyteller and rootler of strange facts, and Amsterdam should be issued as standard kit for anyone visiting the city who is not entirely corroded by vice."
--The Guardian
 

“Amsterdam is a small place that casts a big shadow. As Russell Shorto shows in this smart, elegant book, culture and geography have conspired to thrust the city into the midst of our day's most important debates. How much individual freedom can we live with? What are the limits of acceptance? How can people from different parts of the world -- people with different beliefs, backgrounds and values -- coexist in our increasingly globalized cities? Not only is this a wonderfully readable account of the city that Shorto has come to call home, it is also a history of how the Dutch invented -- and sometimes failed to live up to -- today's concepts of liberty and tolerance.”
—Charles C. Mann, author of 1491 and 1493

"The dynamic historical account of a vibrantly complex European city and the legacy of social, political and economic liberalism it bequeathed to the Western world...Shorto's examination of Amsterdam's colorful history offers important insights into the promise and possibility of enlightened liberalism. Vigorous, erudite and eminently readable."
--Kirkus Reviews

“Most urban histories focus on bricks and mortar; not this one. Russell Shorto writes engagingly about how a city can engender ideas—order, tolerance, comfort, egalitarianism, entrepreneurship—and in turn be shaped by them. Amsterdam argues convincingly that Western liberalism has been greatly influenced by this small, modest, crazy-yet-conventional place.”
Witold Rybczynski, author of How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit
 
“An often brilliant, and always enjoyable, investigation of liberalism's Dutch roots.  Shorto is once again revealed as a passionate and persuasive historian of culture and ideas."
--Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland
 
“Russell Shorto loves Amsterdam, I love this book.”
—Job Cohen, former mayor of Amsterdam
 
Russell Shorto's luminous book is a riveting history of one of the world's most remarkable cities. It is also an entertaining history full of deftly drawn characters and intoxicating ideas which have made Amsterdam the birthplace of liberalism in its many and shifting incarnations.”
—Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor & Publisher, The Nation
 
"This is a wonderful history of a great and fascinating city. Sho


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