The Almost Nearly Perfect People

“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 (it’s the only country where public transportation drivers apologize for the high fares) 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.