How cool is this--I decided that it was worth owning Geert Mak's Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, so ordered it from The Book Depository and the freebie bookmark they included in the order is one of the award winners from their last competition. They invited readers/customers to design a bookmark and then twenty were chosen (I have managed so far to 'collect' nine of them). One was designed by a lady in The Netherlands and whoever packed my book kindly sent along the 'Dutch' bookmark.
If you look closely you will see windmills, bridges, those famous houses that sit by the canals and lots and lots of books. Surely whoever chose it for my order did so on purpose? A Dutch-inspired bookmark for a book on the history of Amsterdam. Who says there aren't nice people out there (packing just the right bookmark for a book--and I will admit, however silly it sounds--I actually do try and match bookmark to book). If you want to see the designs that won (including Mathilde's in full) they are here. By the way, I am greedy and hope to collect the other eleven.
My Dutch-inspired reading continues apace (I swear I will write about the other books I'm reading now, too, as there are a variety that grace my night table at the moment). I've finished Madame Verona and hope to tell you all about it later this week. Since I am 'in Amsterdam' at the moment with one of my books (and have several crime novels set there to look forward to), I thought it would be a good time to read about the history of the city and have heard good things in general about Geert Mak.
I'm a really slow nonfiction reader, so I am only just starting the second chapter though Mak has a very inviting style of writing. Nonfiction and history in particular is so often full of detail and as much as I want to take it all in and imprint it firmly on my brain, I imagine I only take away a small portion of what I read no matter how many little marks I make on the margins or note down in my reading journal, and this one is no exception.
Mak takes the reader all the way back to Medieval times to tell the story of Amsterdam. He starts, "history begins beneath the roots of trees. It is certainly true of Amsterdam, a city that grew up on the Ij (a bay in the SW of the Zuiderzee--now the Ijsselmmer--today largely reclaimed from the sea) and sank, only to rise again." It seems as though as illustrious as the city is now, it had a curious beginning. Mak calls it a "late bloomer" and it is almost by chance that it became the famed city it is now. He puts it down to three things--chance, the invention of the cog (!), and the stupidity and short-sightedness of others. The cog revolutionized how goods could be transported making it easy to import and export. And it was the shortsightedness of the rulers who were trying to make money from the merchant class and their routes through The Netherlands that could be impassable that made the pendulum of success swing towards Amsterdam as the more 'progressive' city. It all helped the city "cultivate its individuality", which has of course carried over to today.
It's hard to choose a teaser since so much of what he writes builds on the stories he tells, the pieces of history known and the observations of the culture of the city, but I have picked out something from the prologue that might offer a little insight to what Amsterdam is really like (the city and the people)--at least it will be something for me to build on.
"Amsterdam is not proud; indeed, it is even unproud in a proud sort of way. The wealthiest Amsterdammers have clung stubbornly to the sobriety of their seventeenth-century forefathers, with the result that a cityscape has emerged untouched by the grandeur of absolutism, and uncut by the broad avenues which might have been driven through the city in the nineteenth century. Even the proud Amsterdam of the Golden Age was, in its time and according to the norms of the day, the very anti-image of a modern city: traditional in outlook, oriented towards individual citizens rather than a powerful aristocracy. Its wealth has always been quiet and discreet. There is a direct line from the eighteenth-century Widow Pels on the Herengracht, who, although the richest inhabitant of the Amsterdam of her day, employed no more than five servants, to the senior manager from the city who recently asked in a weekly magazine whether the KLM airline could not tone down the service in its Business Class a little: 'A cheese sandwich and a glass of milk are more than enough as I am concerned'."
I'm really looking forward to forming a fuller picture in my mind of Amsterdam. Hopefully I will come away with more than I am expecting to remember. To that end I might just write about the book along the way, breaking it all down into something a little more manageable to write about. I have added a few more books to my reading pile and have requested a few more via my library's interlibrary loan (and may even look up a few travel guides for visuals). But more about those books later.