Unfair as it may be, when most Americans think of Amsterdam, we think of drugs and the red light district. Yet in Amsterdam, Russell Shorto’s deeply fascinating history of what he calls “the world’s most liberal city,” we learn that this place steeped in history, art and philosophy is so much more.

Amsterdam began as a soggy little fishing village where herring was about the best thing going. Then, in 1345, a dying man threw up a Eucharist. The host was still whole, and would not burn. Clearly this was a divine act—Catholics believe the Eucharist is the body of Christ. Thousands made pilgrimages to Amsterdam, the first time most people on the continent paid attention to it. The street through which the pilgrims streamed into town was called the Holy Way and today is called Overtoom, which Shorto describes as “a gritty, Broadway-like stretch of drab shops and rental car outlets . . . chockablock with an unholy assembly of jewelry stores and designer shoe shops.”

Therein lies the best thing about this truly nifty book: Shorto zooms back and forth from medieval times to modern life, boggling the reader’s mind with how much things change and yet stay the same.

The cafĂ© where Shorto wrote much of the book? Used to be the house where Rembrandt lived with his wife before she died and he took up with the maid. That bridge he’s standing on? The site of the world’s first true stock market, where residents gathered to buy shares in the United East India Company (which, by the way, was the world’s first multinational corporation). By retelling the stories of the city’s residents—some famous, some forgotten—Shorto shows how the Dutch came to value personal liberty while sharing a sense of responsibility: That man-made system keeping the city from being flooded with seawater wasn’t going to pump itself.

“That is the story that Amsterdam tells,” writes Shorto. “Working together, we win land from the sea. Individually, we own it; individually, we prosper, so that collectively we do. Together, we maintain a society of individuals. For an American, raised on a diet of raw individualism, it remains a bit of a challenge to parse that logic.” Shorto does so, beautifully, in this examination of what society can—and perhaps should—be.

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