I’ll start with the full disclosure: I have family from and living in Denmark, and living in Norway. I’ve travelled in Scandinavia, visiting wonderful places and having wonderful experiences. I’m a believer in their traditional social democratic dream. But Michael Booth, author of a new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, must have done too. He’s married to a Dane and has lived in Copenhagen for a decade, as well as travelling across the Nordic region in the course of writing and researching the book. So why the negativity?
This is an important book. There is a need for nuance in discussing the region; appreciation and understanding is necessary. Too often it is reduced to clichés and panoramas, based on little real experience or evidence. Moreover, the recent fashion for Scandimania has hidden many of the flaws that undoubtedly exist. Booth has been brave in challenging these and drawing them to the surface. Yet too often he knocks down straw men, challenging media stereotypes rather than presenting a balanced picture. At times it feels like half a book, an interesting and informative travelogue with the praise redacted.
This is a real shame, because the book is fascinating. The pub quiz facts are fun – the majority of Icelanders believe in elves, high school graduates wear jaunty nautical hats – and the explanations of key Scandinavian concepts, such as hygge, sisu and duktig – are excellent. The economic analysis is interesting, as are the discussions with sociologists. For example, the suggestion that the seeds of the Icelandic banking crisis were sown with fishing quotas that developed into tradable fish futures is fascinating. Even if conclusions sometimes seem skewed – are shorter working hours really a sign of social decline? – there are genuine attempts to understand societies which, like all, are incredibly complex and seemingly contradictory. Booth’s style is flippant and amusing, making difficult subjects accessible and genuinely funny. It is reminiscent of Simon Winder’s Germania – a similar, if far more sympathetic, book.
Despite these positives, the book still seems based on a false premise. It is a challenge to a foreign media stereotype, not Scandinavian exceptionalism. Moreover, is our image of Scandinavia really so radiant? Surely with Nordic Noir, we now see the dark side of Scandinavian life, albeit fictionalised. The likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have raised the same issues as Booth for years: the crumbling of the welfare state, the intolerance and rise of the far right, the long shadow of the war. The book is a missed opportunity, an excellent piece of work limited by its reluctance to re-emphasise the positive side of Scandinavia. The real advantages are as unknown to those outside Scandinavia as the negatives – Booth has furnished us with half the picture. His admiration for Scandinavia shines through in the conclusion, but he has missed an opportunity to define our image of the Nordic countries, not just challenge stereotypes. Booth’s book deserves to be read as an insight into Scandinavian life, but the reader should bear in mind the positives that fail to fully shine through.