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The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,936 ratings  ·  114 reviews
At the apogee of its powers in the seventeenth century, Holland was a tiny island of prosperity in a sea of want. Its homes were well-furnished and fanatically clean; its citizens feasted on 100-course banquets and speculated fortunes on new varieties of tulip. Yet, in the midst of plenty, the Dutch were ill at ease. In this brilliantly innovative book--which launched his ...more
Paperback, 720 pages
Published December 8th 1997 by Vintage (first published 1987)
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Opening the pages of Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches has felt like letting the waters of knowledge wash over my poor guideless and guileless mind. Each new chapter surged like a new tide that would pull me upwards and drag me downwards, pushing and towing my senses mercilessly. These are the ebbs and flows of reading.

My hopelessness is then my Embarrassment while the erudition is Schama’s Richness.

How could I survive this read? I needed dykes and canals and structures that would organize the fl
From whales to worms, from cheese to children, from tulips to tarts.

Simon Schama, for all his irritating wavy head and waggly shoulders when broadcasting, is a writer of grace and verve, one who can engage his audience without ever sounding superior or condescending. He has gone down on record as a historian who believes that his discipline should be more than a playground for arcane arguments amongst academics, who believes that it is of wider import, and therefore needs to be accessible. And a
Nov 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a really fun book that explores the Golden Age of the Netherlands (predominantly the 17th century) and its culture - as someone else here put it neatly, it's a book about how the Dutch became Dutch. I wish I had more time to spend reading this work because it's a treasure trove of fascinating information. There's stories about a beached whale, a punishment for sloth that consisted of labor-intesive process of pumping water of a room so that the inmate wouldn't drown, lavish Dutch feasts, ...more
Aliefka Bijlsma
Oct 13, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is frequently referenced or referred to when discussing the Dutch Golden Age. I wasn't fond of it, it's dry. If you're interested in this piece of Dutch history, you should read these books instead:
* Maarten Prak's book "The Dutch Republic in the Seventeeth Century" - especially due to its thematical approach (love the chapter on arts and culture)
* Jonathan Israel's book "The Dutch Republic"
Michael Perkins
Dec 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
This volume contains the astounding account of the famous tulip-mania in Holland. It's a reminder that mass delusions are nothing new, but keep emerging into our own time, as we have seen once again in 2020 U.S. ...more
Phyllis Harrison
May 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
I'm a huge fan of Simon Schama and read this book over and over again. What does a country full of hard-working, modest people do when they find themselves on the top of the heap with too much plenty? What personal and collective issues do they have? Some institutions were centuries ahead of their time in the Netherlands and others struggled to move out of the dark ages along with the rest of their world. The contemporary art alone tells us volumes of things that were never said out loud but onl ...more
Jun 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A history that shows you how the Dutch became Dutch. Has pictures, since it was written by an art historian, and a wealth of very interesting themes such as Calvinism vs wealth, the use of art as moralizing tales and business vs pleasure. The Netherlanders I've spoken to said it caused a great ruckus in their country when it came out. Some thought it too simple, some were insulted and some said it was spot on. I loved it. ...more
Feb 24, 2017 rated it liked it
For someone who knew little about Dutch history and culture, I found this book (though very long) to be eye-opening and even at times entertaining. Covering everything from the people's penchant for feasting to the birth of children, Schama interprets artworks from the 1600s as he seeks to explore how the Dutch could simultaneously be reputed to be thrifty and profligate. Although it isn't a history of the country per se, it does a very good job of covering the lives of its people. ...more
Jul 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Awesome. I keep rereading it. The 17th century dutch are the new 21st century Americans. Discuss.
Feb 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Dutch expats
Best for academics and anyone who's got a lot of extra time to learn why the Dutch are who they are (expats like myself, perhaps?), but surprisingly great reading for an essentially academic text. ...more
Czarny Pies
Nov 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone. This is a great synthesis overview of a great culture.
Recommended to Czarny by: Simon Schama who has high regard for all his books.
Shelves: european-history
This is an absolutely remarkable book in which Simon Schama by examining the Dutch paintings, engravings, sculptures, architecture and poetry of in the period between 1560 and 1670 demonstrates that there was such a thing as Dutch personality that encompassed Dutchman of all regions and social classes. Over this common Dutch personality, there was an ideology of what what it meant to be Dutch that was often close to the reality and never terribly far away.

As a tour de force, think of Alexis de T
Jun 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Simon Schama is a “university professor” of Columbia University, which is the highest ranking faculty who serve the university as a whole instead of a specific field. Schama’s expertise is history and art history, which is amply demonstrated in this magnificently enjoyable book on Dutch Golden Age.

We encounter Dutch paintings in most fine art museums, and most of us would relish the humanism in the so-called Genre Paintings such as domestic interior of kitchen or parlor, drunken revelry of a fam
Aug 22, 2016 rated it liked it
This book literally fell apart as I read it. The pages fell out in chunks. Some poor soul who had this as a textbook valiantly tried to underline important ideas in chapter one, but the underlining petered out in chapter two, only to reappear again briefly after about 300 pages.

This is not the first book you should read on the Dutch Golden Age, because it takes a certain amount of straightforward history for granted. It is, as the title suggests, an interpretation instead. There's something to b
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]A massive huge book this, Schama's attempt to get inside the heads of the Dutch in the last sixteenth and early to mid seventeenth centuries. He is very convincing on the impact of natural as well as political/military disasters, on the formation of Dutch identity after the formation of the state, on the role of religion and the family, and the whole thing is beautifully illustrated with paintings and woodcuts from the period. (I was particu ...more
Mark Walker
This is described as a book of essays, and indeed it is a series of thematic ways of looking at assessing culture. Some approaches were more interesting than others. Some of it felt a bit self indulgent and that because he knows stuff he wants to tell you about it. But within this book there are interesting insights into what it meant to be Dutch, and some general provoking of thoughts about the culture of any nation. How are nations provided with their identities that hold them together and mea ...more
Andrew Pessin
Sep 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Wow, what an achievement. "An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age" is right. Everything you could possibly want to know, and probably a whole lot you don't, about Dutch life in the 17th century. As a scholarly achievement this is stunning. Schama knows every painting, every writing, every person, every Dutch event of the 17th century and then some. It's also quite amazing as a piece of literature -- he writes beautifully, evocatively, and can "interpret" a work of art with the best ...more
Sep 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Schama covers in amazing detail the culture and history of the Netherlands during the peak of its Golden Age in the seventeenth century. He provides great insight on some of the origins of the traits we associate with the Dutch - strong business sense, open mindedness, high value for cleanliness and a great work ethic. Although reading this entire book (700 pages) is a bit of a grind, the book is filled with photos of art from the Dutch masters and his descriptions of how they depict the culture ...more
Apr 21, 2013 rated it liked it
Wow, this book is dense. Really good artwork and some really detailed information about Holland and its empire in the 1600s...but this is one of those books that after you read it, you'll wonder why you even picked it up, or whether you'll ever need to know half the stuff you've just read... ...more
Nov 28, 2017 rated it liked it
SS’s Embarrassment is often more like a travel guide than merely a history of 17th century Netherlands. In addition to the usual recounting of wars and international rivalries, the reader is acquainted what it was like to live there. We learn about the Dutch diet, class structure, attitudes to sex, religion, money, family life, etc. SS is an expert on art as well as history, and a large part part of the charm of this marvelously well researched book is the frequent citation of assumptions implic ...more
Persephone Abbott
Jan 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read this once years ago and then bought a copy recently to help me with the book I was writing. Schama is very entertaining a second time round. I was surprised to find myself wondering what I had taken in from my first reading of the book all those many years ago; I began to think I must have tried to take things way too seriously because I found the read much more chatty than I had remembered. But then I've now lived in Holland a decade longer and perhaps cultural matters are more ingrained ...more
Jun 18, 2014 rated it did not like it
I couldn't read more than a few pages before I gave up. I was done in by the self-congratulatory tone, the incessant personal asides, and the circuitous path through the narrative. While this has happened before with Schama, I tried again, this time on tape in hope that narration by Nadia May, a/k/a Donada Peters, would ease my burden. Not even she could help, and I could listen to her read a cereal box.

It's so sad because Schama writes about really interesting things (here: the formation of Dut
Amy Beth
Jan 07, 2012 rated it liked it
I used this book as research into the development of the idea of home in the golden age of Dutch culture, so I only was interested enough to read the parts about home, women, and children. I also wished he would have at some point given a clear outline of Dutch history. He just kept referencing it assuming that the reader knew it in some detail. I would have read more of the rest if he had. I feel his later writing is clearer. Beautiful source for illustrations, though.
Mar 25, 2013 rated it liked it
Quite impressive overview of the culture in the Dutch Republic of the 17th Century. In just 2 generations this new country became an economic, diplomatic and cultural giant. Schama zooms in on how the cultural elite of the republic looked at this very steep rise: certainly with awe and pride, but also with some feelings of uneasiness and discomfort. Nicely done, but to my taste, Schama is a bit too dependent on the pictural arts.
Feb 21, 2019 rated it did not like it
In short - written by academia for academia.

Too much information which isn’t fully relevant. No clear argument / structure to the outline of the book. (Chapters are cleverly titled which only becomes clear after you’ve finished the chapter - so not helpful)

Save yourself the time and find another book.

p.s. this is the first book I’ve seen where the name of the author is larger font than the title of the book
Jack Coleman
Mar 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
An eclectic tour through the History of Holland through its Art.
Simply amazing and what books are intendend to do,enrich your soul.

Tea that helps our head and heart
Tea medicates most every part
Tea rejuvinates the very old
Tea warms the piss of those who're
Cold, circa 1670

Schama does present and interpret a large amount of research. I would say that this is a volume that reads more like a text book and is definitely not light. Schama's delves into the history of The Netherlands giving insights of it's influence on how the Dutch perceive themselves and their country. It is an interesting read but be sure to have a reference near by. ...more
Lewis colburn
Sep 09, 2007 rated it liked it
early schama- not at his best, but filled with strange little details that make it worth reading. lord knows i need to know everything about 17th-century dutch promiscuity, but it's somehow enthralling... ...more
David Serxner
Mar 13, 2008 marked it as to-read
I have had this a while, in fact I think since I saw it at the NGA's bookshop during a Rembrandt exhibit. Schama is an excellent author, I read Citizens for a class on the French revolution as an undergrad. He just tends to get a little heavy at times... ...more
Edie Meidav
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Schama has the gift of making the distant proximate, the unthinkable possible. So far I especially like the chapter on the Dutch tendency to imagine penal punishment. I am not the first to say this, but he is one of our most gifted historians.
Rick Smith
Jul 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a fantastic book. Heavy on the dry technical writing, as Mr Schama is known for. However a MUST read for anybody interested in the subject. Only 600 pages, as the rest is an appendix that's worthwhile all on its own. ...more
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Simon Schama was born in 1945. The son of a textile merchant with Lithuanian and Turkish grandparents, he spent his early years in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. When his parents moved to London he won a scholarship to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School where his two great loves were English and History. Forced to choose between the two he opted to read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Here he was taught ...more

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“Even for the most excitable preacher, there was nothing inherently sinful about a waffle.” 15 likes
“The retaining membrane that held Dutch culture together for more than a century was a marvel of elasticity. Responding to appropriate external stimuli, it could expand or contract as the conditions of its survival altered. Under pressure, it could tighten to compress the Dutch into a sense of their indissoluble unity. In more expansive times it could relax and swell, allowing for internal differentiation and the absorption of a whole gamut of beliefs, faiths and even tongues. An omniscient kind of social filter swallowed up those foreign bodies and spat them out again as burghers: civically salubrious and residentially reliable.” 1 likes
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