Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People
By Michael Booth
"When faced with the happiest, most trusting, and successful people on the planet, one's natural instinct is to try to find fault." At least, that's British journalist Michael Booth's impulse in his new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, as he journeys to each of the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden), propelled by the world's increasing interest in these so-called perfect societies. Booth is especially intrigued because, after living in Denmark for more than a decade, he doesn't see the relationship between the hype and the reality.
Ranking even above its northern brethren, Denmark is often voted as the happiest country in the world, a statistic that befuddles Booth who observes that Danes are among the "least demonstrably joyful people on earth" as well as the second highest consumers of antidepressants in Europe. Booth, who lives in Denmark against his will (married to a Dane), has much to gripe about, from the Danes' xenophobia and racial stereotyping to their astonishingly high taxes (the government takes about 70 percent). But he does admit advantages to Danish customs, including a remarkable work-life balance, a true sense of equality and a pervasive tendency to appreciate what they have rather than bemoan what they've lost (notably, an entire empire).
Booth's keen observations don't stop at Denmark. He devotes a small section to Iceland, reflecting on the invincibility of the Icelandic spirit in spite of the recent economic crash. In Norway, he explores the country's astonishing oil wealth and admires the citizens' touching reverence for nature. In Finland, he considers why the Finnish educational system is the best in the world and writes lovingly about the modesty of the Finns (when Newsweek picked Finland among the greatest places to live, the Finnish media immediately countered that Switzerland should have won). Booth concludes his journey in Sweden, the Scandinavian poster child the rest of the Nordic countries love to hate.
Booth's artful critique reveals that what is superficially good may be bad in practice. Nationalistic Norway is proud of its heritage but suspicious of foreign cultures. Sweden, despite its long-standing neutral stance, is one of the top arms manufacturers. The Danes' emphasis on equality causes them to frown on individual success. Ultimately, Booth decides, Scandinavia is a great place to be average.
What's most fun for readers is Booth's laugh-out-loud humor and uniquely British perspective. While he is appalled at the lack of manners he encounters in Sweden, he also manages to inadvertently offend many of his interview subjects with his insistent and pointed questions. One Swede even accuses him of presenting "a rather snotty British attitude to the world: 'I can sit on my island and I can judge all cultures.'"
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 a unique destination, inviting travelers to further explore the compelling and contradictory cultures of Scandinavia.
A Longitude Interview
In his new book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, Guardian journalist Michael Booth writes with humor and candor about the Scandinavians, mixing history with his own experiences, including residency in Denmark and travel throughout Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. In this interview, Booth elucidates the idiosyncrasies and charms of each Scandinavian nation, from eco-footprints to Legoland. Read the full conversation on our blog.
LONGITUDE: Your book encourages readers to look past tropes and stereotypes about the Nordic countries. Were you guilty of buying into some of the stereotypes yourself? Which ones?
BOOTH: It wasn't so much that I bought into stereotypes about the Nordic countries, more that before I met my wife I was quite incredibly ignorant about them. I barely knew the basic geography. I think my knowledge of Scandinavia was pretty much limited to the Swedish Chef and IKEA. That has changed somewhat...
LONGITUDE: The Nordic regions are known for being expensive to visit. Which country is most economical and rewarding for travelers?
BOOTH: It is true, all of the Nordic countries are phenomenally expensive to visit. I believe the Swedish krona is perhaps better value for visitors, but it's marginal. On the other hand, lots of museums and attractions are free at least one day a week, so if you plan well you can save money in that way. And Legoland is free after 5pm every day. It closes about an hour later, and the rides stop at 5pm, but at least you can see the Lego cityscapes!
Everyone should visit Iceland at least once in their lives: it has the most extraordinary landscape on Earth. For beautiful countryside, Norway is hard to beat; it is breathtakingly gorgeous. For culture and food, it has to be Copenhagen. For sheer "otherness," Finland. The single greatest sight in all of Scandinavia, however, is the Vasa in Stockholm (look it up!).
LONGITUDE: After living in Denmark for over a decade, you're not convinced it is the happiest country in the world. Why not?
BOOTH: Actually, Denmark has even plummeted in the official happiness surveys, but it was always a myth that they were "happy" (the people who run those happiness surveys secretly admit they use the word because it grabs headlines). I think "contented" or "satisfied" is a much better way of describing them: and they do have an awful lot to be contented about — free healthcare and education, great welfare provision, they are pretty rich, they don't work so much and they are all beautiful, tall and slim (at least compared to me).
LONGITUDE: Much of your book is spent pointing out the inconsistencies you've found within each country — for example, neutral Sweden is also a major arms manufacturer. What was the most baffling contradiction you encountered?
BOOTH: One of the most unsettling ones is the high levels of reported violence against women. These countries are among the most gender-equal in the world, but Denmark and Sweden rank one and two, I believe, in terms of the numbers of women who have been the victims of violence. Obviously, a lot of that is to do with reporting levels, but still they shouldn't really be anywhere near the top 20.
Also, Denmark brands itself as being the most green/environmentally friendly country in the world, but in fact the Danes' per capita eco-footprint is greater than that of Americans'. They burn a lot of coal and oil, they own more cars than ever (very few of them hybrids) and are home to the world's biggest shipping company, Mærsk.
Then you have the world record levels of anti-depressant usage; as you mention, 'neutral' Sweden's arms industry; the Icelanders' belief in the existence of elves; the Danes' fondness for bestiality (which is still perfectly legal); Finnish homicide rates... so much more!"
LONGITUDE: Which two Nordic countries have the most interesting relationship?
BOOTH: The five Nordic countries are like one great dysfunctional family, so the inter-relationships are all fascinating: most animosity, however, focuses on the Swedes, because, basically, they won. The Danes are especially bitter about this, while the Finns also bear a grudge or two towards them.
LONGITUDE: How did the Scandinavians react to your book?
BOOTH: Interestingly to type: the Danes got a bit fighty, but then forgot about it; the Swedes were quite pedantic about statistics but, again, they are used to hearing criticism from their neighbours; the Finns took it with their characteristic dry humour; the Icelanders were just annoyed that I didn't write more about them; but the Norwegians were furious. It seems no one had ever pointed out to them that the source of their great wealth — the oil — was not terribly good for the planet.
LONGITUDE: Which books (besides your own!) would you recommend to travelers to Scandinavia?
BOOTH: Karen Blixen, the great Danish writer, is always good. I should recommend all those Nordic Noir crime writers, and I am sure they are great, but I can't stand crime literature.
LONGITUDE: In your travels, which country have you found to be the happiest?
BOOTH: Actually, Japan. I adore it, and its people.
For more recommended reading on Scandinavia, click here.