Leiden, The Netherlands
Photo of Leiden by ironmanixs used under a Creative Commons license.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment Of Riches (Knopf, 1987).
A tour de force, a cultural history of the Netherlands during the 17th century, the height of Dutch riches and power.  While a reader will pick up something of the time’s diplomatic and military history, Schama touches on those events mostly as context for a rich and sweeping parade of examples of how the Dutch saw themselves and their world.  Out of such disparate strands as whale strandings and  a midwife’s diary, and better known episodes and artifacts like tulip speculation and portraiture, Schama keeps drawing compelling insights.  It is not a light book, though it is stuffed with illustrations.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Schama. Here is his bio at Columbia University. Google Books lets you take a look. Harold Beaver (The New York Times) calls it an erudite and engrossing study that offers a fascinating panorama. For what it’s worth, historians J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts call it provocative but superficial, in A History of Low Countries 483 (Berghahn Books, 1999). It’s on National Geographic’s list of Amsterdam resources. Here is a 1995 profile of Schama in New York. Schama wrote the book in Lexington, Mass.

Buy it at Amazon.com.