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 simply 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 definitely 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 a group of friends set up an Old-But-Not-Dead club to organise excursions for those who are interested in them. Other diversions in Hendrik’s life include choosing a mobility scooter and mulling over euthanasia. The book is hilarious, and also a nice way to learn something 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 do 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 as they need to be 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 absolutely 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 really 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.
From their liberalism to their directness, if you’ve been confused or just plain concerned by the Dutchies around you, 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 really 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.
What this book does really well is 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, but 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 in the same time period, the Dutch also became masters of the book trade. 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.
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).
But there are plenty of reasons to read this book even if, somehow, you’re not interested in history. 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 is the book for you.
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 history of the Netherlands, and 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 really meant for the Dutchies, this is the book for you.
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 to understand what some of the best known Dutch Golden Age paintings were saying about the world. You’ll be wandering around the Rijksmuseum with fresh eyes in no time.
8. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
This is a title you might more easily associate 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. 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 would 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.
Feature image: Pixabay/Pexels
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2019, and was fully updated in April 2021 for your reading pleasure.