The Nearly Almost Perfect People


 When the British journalist and author Michael Booth, living in Copenhagen, read that Scandinavian people had been anointed the happiest people in the world in  the so-called “Satisfaction with Life Index”,  he was intrigued to find the truth about the Nordic miracle.

120215-booth-book-cover-the-almost-nearly-perfect-peopleWhat he found resulted in the book, “The Nearly Almost Perfect People”, first published in England by Random House, then translated into Danish and subsequently released this month in the USA.  In my opinion, this book is a must-read book for all persons interested in Scandinavia, working with Scandinavians, or planning a trip to this part of the world.   It is always interesting for the happiest people on earth to read how we are seen by foreigners, and what we might learn from it.

Many people believe that Norway, Sweden and Denmark are a region populated by a homogeneous people – nothing is further from the truth, which one can really learn by reading Booth’s entertaining but also informative book.

Michael Booth has traveled extensively in the five Nordic countries, well aware of the fact that Finland and Iceland do not belong to Scandinavia, but as he says, “The Finns have reserved the right to opt in and out of the old marauders’ club as and when it suits them, and I don’t think the Icelanders would be too upset to be labeled as Scandinavians either.”

The author has met people in different situations in the five countries and has interviewed professors and economists as well as socio-anthropologists and inhabitants in general.  When he describes the different countries and their peoples,  he often makes preposterous statements, but instead of passing the assertion unchallenged, he most ably avoids being interpreted as accusing people or behavior by explaining why they are the way that they are.

Michael Booth. Photo: Tor Kjolberg
Michael Booth. Photo: Tor Kjolberg

In spite of its humoristic and often cynical style,  this book reveals supporting statistics, mentions other books and facts on the Nordic economies, as well as the lifestyles, habits and histories of each – all contributing to making this book a most reliable source of information.

Nevertheless , there are those who may be offended.  Not everything or everyone is perfect, even in Scandinavia, and that is why I recommend that Scandinavians read it as well.  As a snotty Brit, to use his own description, he drills into issues that are particularly sensitive for Scandinavians, asks sarcastic questions and analyzes the answers in both an ironic and candid way.  For example – why are the Nordic people not known for being the most sober people on this earth when they have established their state wine and liquor monopolies. Booth’s keen observations take us through five different countries, full of surprises and pointing out characteristics which in his view are worth thinking about.

When Michael once wrote a subtle comment about the Nordic countries in a British paper, the most aggressive reactions came from Norwegians.

Throughout his book,  Booth balances humor with facts and personal experiences.  His chapter titles might, however, create some confusion and curiousness  such as  “Dixieland” and  Denmark?  Booth tries to  compare Danish congeniality to American Dixieland jazz in a beer garden.  In his chapter on “Elves” he stresses that 54 per cent of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves, and he cannot resist making jokes about Norwegian national costumes,  which he mockingly refers to “dirndls” from the German Dirndlkleid .  He also devotes a full chapter on Finland to “Santa” and on Sweden to “Donald Duck”.

Don’t be turned off by funny chapter titles, though.  I would describe Booth’s book as an artful critique, sometimes revealing that what is superficially good may be bad in practice; Sweden’s long-standing neutrality, which has annoyed other Nordic countries, and Norway’s nationalistic and even egoistic attitude enhanced of “we know best”, all aided by the country’s oil economy.  The author writes that Norwegians were traditionally thought of as Scandinavia’s “country bumpkins”, whereas the Danes’ emphasis on equality, leads to less individual success.

Booth embraces the Economist’s description of Scandinavia in the magazine’s special edition on the region, “Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born…but only if you are average.  If you have average talent, have average ambitions and average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams,  great visions, or just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.

The Longitude Blog claims, “Regardless, Booth urges readers to see beyond tired tropes and become better acquainted with the quirks and charms of the Nordic region.  His insightful and entertaining profiles define each country as  unique destinations , inviting travelers to further explore the compelling and contradictory cultures of Scandinavia.”

You are hereby invited to read Michael Booth’s excellent book on the Nordic Utopia.

An interview with Michael Booth will follow next month.

The Nearly Almost Perfect People, review by Tor Kjolberg

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Michael Booth on Sweden