Looking beyond the bicycles, coffee shops, and legal prostitution that have earned Amsterdam (Doubleday, $28.95) its top ranking among liberal cities, Russell Shorto explores how his adopted home became what it is and how it has enriched the term liberal. Amsterdam’s liberalism was in place from the start, grounded in the communal effort to wrest—and keep—land from the sea. Emphasizing that the city’s vaunted tolerance is as much a pragmatic approach to managing what would be going on anyway as it is an ideal, Shorto traces principles such as free speech and diversity through centuries of social, political, and economic movements. He also cites Amsterdam for a number of firsts, including corporations and a stock exchange—the very foundation stones of capitalism. If this makes Amsterdam sound like a paradise, it’s not. The place has seen and perpetrated its share of miseries, from bursts of religious violence to Industrial Age slums to complicity in colonial exploitation and ineffective resistance to the Nazis—Anne Frank stands for millions of Holocaust victims. But on the evidence here, “liberal” also means resilience and an ongoing commitment to bettering life for all. In this, Amsterdam has been a shining example, and is well served by Shorto’s warm and deeply insightful profile.