National Press Club

NPC book club brunches with 'Amsterdam' author

April 23, 2014 | By Peggy Orchowski |

Author Russell Shorto

Author Russell Shorto

Photo/Image: Keke Keukelaar

Some 30 members of the National Press Club's Books & Brunch group and guests turned out April 19 to brunch with author Russell Shorto, to ask questions and discuss at length his highly-enlightening light bulb-popping book "Amsterdam: the Most Liberal City In The World."

An American journalist and contributing editor for the New York Times Magazine, Shorto first revealed the largely-forgotten early history of New York City, originally known as New Amsterdam, and the founding Dutchmen who created a brand new progressive American culture in his book Island in the Center of the World, published in 2004.

After publishing Island in the Center of the World, Shorto became director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam and dug into the remarkable and unique history of Amsterdam. In the 1600s, the city was the center of enlightenment, publishing, grassroots democracy, mercantilism and the most tolerant city in Europe.

Many members of the Press Club Travel Committee, which is planning a September trip to Amsterdam, attended the book club event, but the discussion was not about tourism. It was rather about the impact of the city’s history that is still seen and felt today including William the Orange’s remarkable progressiveness; Rembrandt’s epic paintings of citizens -- not noblemen or regal church leaders -- such as the Night Watchman, which President Barack Obama recently visited, and above all, that underlying atmosphere of cooperation and tolerance towards controversial behavior such as smoking marijuana and prostitution, known as "gedogen."

“It’s not that there are no regulations. Marijuana actually is illegal in Holland,” Shorto explained, but there is an attitude of “a slap on the wrist” or finding a way to tolerate behavior that may be illegal but that the general public accepts.

This tolerance came early on in Holland when the Catholic inquisition urged punishment of Protestants and the Dutch punished them with a wink and a nod. Now everyone knows marijuana can be bought and used readily in a “coffee shop” as compared to a "cafe," which serves coffee. But gedogen also causes the Dutch today to struggle with the memories of Anne Frank and to question the liberal boundaries of tolerance and "live and let live."

Probably the most shocking tolerance of all to Americans however is the lack of bike helmets. Hundreds of thousands of Dutch ride their bikes everywhere in Amsterdam with even small children on the handlebars, bike seats or bike wagons, the so-called “Dutch SUV." “But if you see anyone with a helmet, you can assume they are an American,” Shorto laughed.

After the discussion, attendees selected The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen as the book to discuss on June 21. On May 17, the group will discuss Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Books & Brunch normally meets the third Saturday of each month at the NPC's Fourth Estate Restaurant. Discussions are open to the public. Information is available from Jack Williams, Books & Brunch chairman, at