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The Island at the Center of the World

The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
Narrated by: Russell Shorto
Length: 14 hrs and 33 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (208 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society - the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the 13 "original" American colonies. For the past 30 years, scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.

In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island - a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears - that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two 17th-century powers. In fact it was Amsterdam - Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade - that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York but America.

The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga - the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding - range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony; and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.

©2005 Russell Shorto (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Astonishing.... A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." ( The New York Times)
"A tour de force.... The dramatic story of New York's origins is splendidly told.... A masterpiece of storytelling and first-rate intellectual history." ( The Wall Street Journal)
"As readable as a finely written novel...social history in the Barbara Tuchman tradition." ( San Jose Mercury News)

What members say

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Incomplete history, but fun. Performance is poor.

First things first, the voice performance by the author himself is bad. He has no concept of flow and makes the story hard to follow. Next time, leave the narration to the professionals. As for the actual history of the New Netherlands colony, it is compelling and very interesting part of American history. The down side is that much of the source material has not been translated as the author admits. We will probably get a better, more complete history in the next 10 to 20 years after all the material has finally been translated. Still, Shorto does an pretty good job with what he was working with and it is worth a listen. The worst part of the book was the author's ridiculous attempt to somehow draw a line from the Dutch colony's openness and the progressive world of modern day NYC. He tries hard to make it some colonial blue state/red state battles with the backwards Massachusetts colonies. It doesn't hold water because he almost never mentions the Virginia colonies which were company towns like New Netherlands towns and were just as open and tolerant of outsiders as the Dutch were, but somehow Virginia and North Carolina didn't morph into modern day progressive capitols. While also ignoring Virginia, he also doesn't mention Rhode Island or Pennsylvania (except for one throw away line at the end), as both colonies had a similar tolerant attitude to different religions. Thankfully, his misguided attempt to connect 17th century ethos to 21st century multiculturalism does not ruin a pretty good book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Amazing history!

so many interesting historical facts we've never heard before. Please keep digging. Very much worth reading again

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Interesting but dull delivery

The information contained in this book is very interesting for history buffs. It contained much that has never been included in any American History. The author read however, while read with care and determined delivery, lacked any kind of character. I appreciate how the author read steadily as some books are read Way too fast, but reminded me of college lectures by professors who were very knowledgeable and loved the subject but just didn't know how to deliver the lecture with any kind of character. This is a good book for Reading.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Enlightening and informative

A slightly grueling but wonderful read on the almost lost influence of Dutch philosophy and pragmatism in the formation of our freedom ethic. The early importance of The Netherlands and a handful of key individuals is highlighted in this informative narrative of New Amsterdam becoming New York.

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Fascinating!!

The book was presented beautifully with all the research and thoughtful description that was put into play made for a very colorful and vivid description of history. Well done!

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a must-read for lovers of American history

the untold story of one of America's oldest and most forgotten colonies New Amsterdam. Dutch merchants recognized the immediate benefit a colony situated on the island of Manhattan, and built a city that has been the center of trade for America ever since.

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So different from the American history we were taught in school!

It was so interesting to learn the truth about the history of my beloved Manhattan or I’ve lived for the last 39 years. Despite having English heritage I have new respect for the Dodge. Now I understand why New York Is the super cool cutting edge anything goes place it is. I moved here in 19802 go to Columbia and that was one of the best decisions I ever made even know I just fell into it because I didn’t get into other Ivies!

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Unforgettable

This is one of my favorite books in the genre of layperson history. It is an unforgettable story of 17th century new Amsterdam ( New York). The stories themselves are interesting and you won’t be able to put it down. The connection to the revolutionary era into the modern era is interesting, to say the least.

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Incredibly scholarly yet literary and entertaining in the first degree

I was swept away from the first with Shortin’s revolutionary yet impeccably researches thesis that New Amsterdam spawned the American chapter and base social assumptions. That would have sufficed for five stars. But his continual excursions from dry, scholarly discourse into frank, folksy characterizations harmed my pants off. On top of this dual triumph of facts and engagement add his courageous and triumphant reading of his own book that reveals both his rhetorical prowess and the further support of his sincerity audible in his evident struggle to balance credibility and passion which manifests throughout in his tone of voice. I can only tell the author that it was very cruel of him to bring his shattering tale to an end, and I shall eagerly await more of the same.

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Epic indeed!

The author/narrator brings to life the remarkable tale of Dutch New Amsterdam and its indisputable influence on the making America. Must reading for New Yorkers and lovers of liberty everywhere!