Almost perfect people or uncool nerds? Michael Booth tears down the Scandinavians--but doesn't really mean it.

Author:Milner, Henry
Position:The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia - Book review

Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.416 pages.

Michael Booth's wide-ranging and often amusing exploration of the Nordic world was spurred on by yet another survey describing his wife's fellow Danes as the happiest people on earth. Not having encountered so many happy Danes, he decided that this was something he had to try to explain, to get a handle on their Scandinavian psyche. Dedicating a section to each of the five Nordic countries, he has much to say about Denmark, his adopted home, but his favourite target is Sweden. Like many people in his adopted country, he is at his most biting when it comes to laying bare the underside of its neighbour, the supposedly most perfect nation on earth.

There are, of course, other targets. In his generally lightly mocking tone, he tells us of such things as the Finns' addiction to antipsychotic drugs, the Danes' addiction to hyggelig or "cosy times," the Norwegians' antisocial isolationism, and the Finns' sisu or machismo. He also finds space to recount the sad tale of the Icelanders' suicidal corporate spending spree. Some of the time he seems to be asking us to treat his put-downs as part of a comedy routine, but at other times he implies that he is getting at some fundamental truth. Overall, he portrays Scandinavians as uncool nerds.

The fundamental problem with this book is the all too frequent lack of context. When describing a particular propensity, the language is unrestrained by any effort to determine how the non-Scandinavian world--for example the author's own United Kingdom--fares in comparison. As journalist-observer, eschewing any claim to social science expertise, he sees no need to compare. Hence there are few facts and figures to back up his contentions, the sources for which are typically quotes from a book or author. And sometimes, if need be, a different book or author that takes the opposite position. This can make for good reading but leaves the nonexpert reader unsure as to what is credible and what is not.

Compared to the sections on Denmark and Sweden, Booth has relatively little to say about the other three, so I'll start with those.

ICELAND: From my short visits to Iceland, it was clear that it is the least Scandinavian of the five. It is typically placed in that category because its language has roots in the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings (though incomprehensible to the Danes, Norwegians and...

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