8 books about the Netherlands you need to read

Grey and rainy days are no exception in the Netherlands, and there’s nothing better than curling up inside with a book to while them away. But you might as well use this time to learn stuff, too.

Whether you’re new to the country, planning on coming here soon, or want to know more about the tiny land of tall people, here are our 10 favourite books to read about the Netherlands.

1. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old by Peter de Smet

Look, I admit this is a weird one. But it’s one of my favourite books about the Netherlands. The book is written through the gaze of Amsterdam pensioner Hendrik Groen as he tries to figure out the meaning of life and love.

He lives in an assisted living facility and considers himself by far the coolest of his fellow pensioners. That is, until the love of his life, Eefje, moves into the nursing home and wins Hendrik’s heart with her sense of humour.

Hendrik and friends set up an Old-But-Not-Dead club to organise excursions. Other diversions in Hendrik’s life include choosing a mobility scooter and mulling over euthanasia.

The book is hilarious and a nice way to learn about how the Netherlands deals with the elderly — if that’s something you know nothing about.

2. The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories by Joost Zwagerman (Ed.)

If you want to know a country, you have to read its short stories, as a wise woman once said (that wise woman was me, and I’m saying it now). But seriously, I think short stories are the best literary format for really getting a sense of a place.

For one, you’ll get lots of different perspectives in manageable chunks, and one person cannot tell the story of a nation.

Secondly, short stories don’t need to have the same commercial merit individually as a novel does, which means they can be as weird and incomprehensible.

They need to tell a story right (real life doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, as you may have noticed). Finally, short story anthologies are lovely because you can pick up the collection, read a single story in a sitting, and absorb it while going about your day.

3. Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates

You can’t live in the Netherlands as an expat without running into Ben Coates, at least digitally. Coates is originally from England but moved here accidentally and never left. 

Why the Dutch are Different explores the history of the Netherlands and tries to piece together why the Dutch are the way they are.

Cover of Ben Coates' book "Why the Dutch are Different"
Ben Coates inspects why the Dutch are the way they are. Image: Ben Coates/Supplied

From liberalism to directness, if you’ve been confused or just concerned by Dutchies, this is the book for you. It’ll also answer other questions you might have as an outsider: why is everything orange? Why is there so much beer and cheese? And what lies beyond the confines of the Randstad?

It’s far more than a surface-level examination of the Netherlands. Coates dives deep into the psyche of this watery nation.

4. India and the Netherlands: Past, Present & Future by Venu Rajamony

If you want to treat someone this Christmas, get them this incredibly lavishly illustrated coffee table book about the historical relationship between India and the Netherlands written by the former India ambassador to the Netherlands, Venu Rajamony.

This book does well by acknowledging the not-great actions of the Netherlands in its colonial territories while generally presenting a story that is enjoyable to read and even has a hopeful note to it. So you’ll hear about the VOC and slavery.

Still, you’ll also read about King Willem and Queen Maxima’s tour of India and the author’s hopeful predictions for the future relationship between the countries.

5. The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Obviously, in an article about books in the Netherlands, there should be a book about books in the Netherlands (I can say “books” plenty more, trust me, but I won’t).

Dutch art in the Golden Age is talked about pretty constantly, but the Dutch also became masters of the book trade in the same period.

Previously dominated by the Italians and Germans, following the migration of Protestants from the Southern Netherlands to Holland during the Eighty Years’ War, the Dutchies started to increase their share in printing, binding and selling books throughout Europe.

Cover of the book "The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age"
The front cover of The Bookshop of the World by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Image: Ailish Lalor/Supplied

It’s a previously undiscussed aspect of the Netherlands’ rise to prosperity, and honestly, it’s fascinating to learn about books in a different era. Also — excuse the shallowness — the book is really pretty. So you can look aesthetically intellectual this holiday season.

6. The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Any good book list on the Netherlands should have plenty about the country’s colonial past, so I present to you The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet. A fictional account of a Dutchman’s life on Dejima, the Dutch-Japanese trading post, this book will bring you back in time to the late eighteenth century.

The Dutch were one of the few western countries that gained access to the Japanese market in this time period, which gave them a pretty significant trade advantage (hello, VOC).

Mitchell’s way of writing is incredibly vivid: one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was the sense of atmosphere- gloomy, cold, a sense of alienation and homesickness.

Perhaps these are not the warmest of emotions, but if you want to visit a different world, this book is for you. But there are plenty of reasons to read this book even if, somehow, you’re not interested in history.

7. An Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama

Are you craving some hardcore history reading? Of course, you are. Even if you’re somehow not, though, this book is a must-read if you want to understand the Netherlands’ history, particularly what happened during the Dutch Golden Age.

It’s a much-mentioned period of time in the Netherlands, but if you want to understand what it meant for the Dutchies, this is the book for you.

You’ll be wandering around the Rijksmuseum with fresh eyes in no time. It has a strong focus on art history, which is no surprise, given the fame of Dutch Golden Age paintings.

Schama uses historical documents to help the reader understand what some of the best known Dutch Golden Age paintings were saying about the world.

8. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

You might more easily associate this title with the painting held in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, but there is also a book based on the painting. It’s a fictional story narrated by Griet, the heroine of the novel, who starts working at the house of Johannes Vermeer as a maid.

photo-of-the-painting-girl-with-a-pearl-earring
The famous painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring Image: Johannes Vermeer/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

She gradually becomes more intimate with Vermeer, becoming his assistant and then modelling for him in a painting that eventually becomes the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

This book is wonderfully atmospheric. I particularly loved the market scenes, which make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. This book will be perfect if you want an easy read over the holidays with no compromises on story quality.

It’s so enjoyable to read and was one of the books that got me interested in Dutch history in the first place.

Have you read any of these? Are there any other books about the Netherlands that we HAVE to read? Let us know in the comments below. 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2019, and was fully updated in February 2022 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:Pexels
Ailish Lalor
Ailish Lalor
Ailish was born in Sydney, Australia, but grew up by a forest in south-east Ireland, which she has attempted to replace with a living room filled with plants in The Hague. Besides catering to her army of pannenkoekenplantjes, Ailish spends her days convincing her friends that all food is better slightly burnt, plotting ways to hang out with dogs and cats, and of course, writing for DutchReview.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Great recommendations…I also enjoyed The Girl with the Pearl Earing … the movie was also very enjoyable… a couple of other books people may enjoy are Tulip Fever, The Mininiaturist and Murder in Amsterdam

  2. The book Arnhem, detailing the ill-fated Battle of Arnhem (part of Operation Market Garden) by Antony Beevor is a superb read.

  3. I’m Dutch, but lived in India and London for some time. Because of living abroad, I became interested in what was that made the Dutch the Dutch. The best book I have read about this is called A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. It explains why thing are as they are in the Netherlands from a historical perspective. It was very enlightened to read this as a duchtman my self.

  4. You have to read Amsterdam, the world’s most liberal city by Russell Shorto. He tells the history of the Netherlands and how their thinking changed our world. Clearly an outstanding book. Brought to my knowledge many facts about the country and I highly recommend this book.

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