If I’d just seen Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, I never would have read it. First of all, the cover of the Finnish edition is hokey as hell. Bad publisher. Go to your room and think of what you’ve done. Second of all, what would you think, if you saw a book that’s just 300 odd pages about Scandinavia and Scandinavian people? Boring, right? Booth mentions very early on that many people to whom he talked about his book project over the years had a similar reaction: “A book about Nordic countries? But we’re so boring!”
Luckily, I read an interview with Booth just before Christmas, and was charmed by his occasionally mean British with, and his nevertheless flattering take on Finland. So when I did come across the book on one of my usual library wanderings, I knew I had to read it. And I’m glad I did.
Booth is a British journalist who, for his sins, has lived for a good while in Denmark and still does. The seeds of The Almost Nearly Perfect People were sowed by those semi-regular happiness surveys where Danes are always found to be the happiest people on earth. How is that possible, Booth wanted to know. Denmark has terrible weather, and the highest taxes in the world. How can they be so freaking happy? The result of that puzzlement is this book in which Booth observes each Nordic country in turn (technically only Sweden, Norway, and at a stretch Denmark are Scandinavian), talking to locals, telling stories of the country’s history and present day, and trying to figure out what makes us tick as societies and as individuals. He ends up making a lot of assumptions, simplifications and generalizations, but he’s also aware of that himself, and tries to paint as complete a picture as possible.
I found the book delightful. It’s funny, and a breeze to read. An outsider’s perspective is also a breath of fresh air in the sometimes stagnant discussion we tend to have of our countries, and what makes us exceptional or doesn’t. In Finland at least, when we hear of studies and surveys that show us doing something right, there seems to be only two possible ways to react. One way is to vehemently deny that there could be anything good about our country. This is not modesty, it’s lack of proper perspective. When someone claims that Finland is as oppressive as Belarus, they’re not being modest, they’re being blind. The other way is the complete opposite, but no less repulsive assertion that of course we’re good, we’re white Europeans. Booth avoids both pitfalls.
Despite all that is good here, I have to pretty big points of criticism. Published in 2014, the book is already a bit dated. For example, no-one in their right mind would say that the economy in Finland is doing all that great. Then again, that wasn’t true even last year. And remember those simplifications I talked about? At least once, when writing about historical events, Booth simplifies matters so much that he ends up giving factually incorrect information.