1987, Books, Non-Fiction, Society

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987) by Simon Schama

I picked this book up because I thought Citizens was great, not because of any particular interest in this subject. That turns out to be a problem because Schama assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader about Dutch political history and some knowledge Dutch cultural history. Fortunately, there’s the internet now. But that didn’t exist when this was published so I think you could argue this is a mistake. I think it’s likely forgivable since this book was very clearly not written for a lay audience.

If you know a lot about Dutch history I think this will be very rewarding for you. It would have worked much better for me if it had been about the US, the UK, Canada or even, maybe, Australia. But even without the requisite knowledge, I found so much here that was of interest. It’s very clearly the result of just an absolute ton of research and thinking about art and culture. Whether or not Schama is correct in what he has to say, I just can’t have an opinion on. But I do think it’s very apparent that what is here is deeply thought (and felt) and anyone wishing to argue with him would likely need to also write a 600 page book.

Despite drowning in knowledge I was unfamiliar with, I do have a few takeaways. One is that it’s remarkable how often societies view themselves as chosen or ordained. This seems to be a human characteristic that is really hard to overcome. If a society experiences any kind of affluence, immediately people start believing “God” is on their side. (Of course, there are some less successful groups who believe similarly, so maybe it’s just extreme conditions that cause this.)

Another takeaway is how affluent societies often seem to believe they are at the forefront of history, or technology, or knowledge, or what have you. Some of the quackery believed by the Dutch at this time is quite amusing. (I should have taken notes!) Of course, lots of people believed crazy stuff back then and there are lots of beliefs we have now that will be viewed by people hundreds of years from now as totally insane. Just one example here is how healthy beer supposedly is compared to…I mean, a lot of other things. The doctor who thought mouth-washing with wine was also quite amusing.

Another takeaway is that I don’t think “Golden Age” is really a great term any more. Though we might look back at Dutch culture in this period and think “the quality of painting has never been equalled by Low Countries painters before or since” there’s not much else that can really be considered “Golden” relative to now. The vast majority of people living in the Netherlands today, if not every single one of them, have better lives than the richest Dutch people during the “Golden Age.” Maybe the art is worse – I have no idea – but life isn’t. So the term is losing its descriptive value, at least economically speaking.

Anyway, despite being thoroughly out of my depths, I found a lot of interest. I would be really interested in reading a similar book about a culture I was more familiar with, or a similar book about an unfamiliar country with a little more deference to the lay reader.


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