This is maybe the almost nearly perfect book about the Scandinavian countries. Michael Booth takes you on a written round trip through Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden in his funny, entertaining and informative non-fiction book. Its stuffed with facts and anectodes of not so quite perfect people from Scandinavia.
I started this book while I was ill after new year. I was forced to lay down in bed and sleep as much as I could due to absence of medicine whatsoever, so sleeping was the only available drug. As no human being can sleep 24 hours I had to find me an activity. As I still struggled with Tolstoi’s “War & Peace” and while being ill I had no nerve to continue, I decided to download this lovely Scandinavian insight. I first spotted it in one of the Reykjavík bookstores of Eymundsson before Christmas. Like everything in Iceland books are also quite expensive. I postponed the buying and searched it online. So, I downloaded it as an affordable eBook with the help of a Christmas gift book voucher and immediately started to read it greedily. Oh well, and there are also 38 short pages about Iceland.
The main idea in the book of this awarded British author is to find out why Denmark and its fellow-Scandinavian countries remain on the top of happiness surveys since decades and why there is such a hype about Nordic design, crime literature, education systems and so on. Therefore he travels to Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden as well his adopted home, Denmark and analyses their cultures, societies and mentalities. He observes daily life, explores historical facts, is grilling experts about their insights and blends all this into a hilarious mixture out of his own opinion, astonishing correlations and visions for each country.
“To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be and able to make appropiate changes if you are not. [Compared to empty slogan of American Dream] In Scandinavia this is a reality.”
Although this book is fully packed with historical and statistical data, Booth is able to write it so fluffy and entertaining, you will absorb all that in a blink of an eye. As the Mail on Sunday expresses it: “Every page contains at least one extraordinary fact about one or other of the Nordic countries.” And this is totally true. I was baffled how little we know of our nordic European neighbours. Did you, for example know, that Sweden had the left-hand traffic until 1967 or that there are several conspiracy theories outlasting, that Norway fooled Denmark in 1965 while dividing the North Sea shelf and consequently took the biggest part of the oil reserves.
Like in “Outliers – The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, as it happened I was reading parallely, Brooths book comes to the conclusion that there are three key factors which influence happiness and are particular given in the Nordic. The first one is to be in charge of what you’re doing, which basically means autonomy. Having meaningful work, which also includes a well-paid job, too. Scandinavian countries have one of the highest and most stable salaries in the world. The second is the relationship between effort and reward. Due to a British study the Nordic countries have the highest social mobilities in the world. If you work hard, it’ll be rewarded in this region. So it is more unlikely that your social background will matter too much for your career. What also is a big cause of happiness and fullfilment is the equal society structures. The gap between rich and poor is much smaller in this part of the world. Booth however doesn’t deny inequality nevertheless exists, but you could egalise it much easier than, i. e. in Britain. And finally, the third factor: Complexity. As there is more trust within Scandinavian societies, advanced industries like the pharmaceutical or engineering industry are attracted to Denmark & Co. as trust in high skilled employees matters more than in not so highly advanced sectors. Although Gladwell puts these three factors in context with satisfying work and thus success, I would argue they also apply for a satisfying life, hence happiness in general. Which is also pretty much success, isn’t it?
I especially liked the cynicism, irony and self-mocking in Michael Booths way of narration. I often bursted into laughter, for example when he describes how he tries to fight his feelings whilst attending the Norwegian Constitution Day on 17th May in Oslo, when he is explaining the “decay” of the Danish language into some kind of mumbling or when he decides to make a study on his own about the Swedes comfort zone. He tries to tease them as long as they would break through their reserves, which seems to demand quite some effort. Due to his lively narrating you literally sympathise with his experiences with the hyggelig Danes, reticent Finns or aloof Swedes as if you have experienced it yourself. He is also a master of dropping the central theme of his narration and then all at once getting back to it, all when you already thought he got hopelessly lost in all his facts and figures.
Unfortunately, you can tell that Iceland was the one out of the five countries, which he didn’t get to know as well as the others. Otherwise he would have added Iceland to the insightfully people who wouldn’t ask how to make a living from writing (“Finns don’t hardly ask how to make a living from writing”) – as they have one of the highest densitiy of authors and publishers among the world. Maybe I was more critical about the Iceland chapter as I can compare his descriptions with my own experiences while I can’t do so with the others. It appears to me quite one-sided, concentrating on the financial break down in 2008 and focuses on rather boring stereotypes, like elves & trolls. Instead, I would have fancied it, if he would have deepen his investigations of the society structure of Iceland as I find it really interesting how it works on this chilly island. Being a mom at the age of 21 – no problem at all, go for it. Having three kids with three different men – not extraordinary over here, no one would judge you for that. Just picture yourself as a 28-year old single mother of three in Germany! Everywhere you go, you would have to justify yourself, not to mention the incongruousness of family and work, not to say career. Icelanders seem to have a deep laid-back attitude to all that.
Still, I think this book is perfect for everybody who either lives or has lived in one of these countries, simply got infected with the “North-virus” at some point or is interested in the happiness phenomenon. I can nothing but recommend to read it to everyone.
My Top 5 favorite facts of the book
- Denmark once reigned over Iceland, Norway, Schleswig and even Finland (15th century), losing all of them bit by bit
- Finland had a just 4 month lasting Civil War in 1918 where 37.000 people died
- 15 % of todays Swedish population was born outside of Sweden
- Iceland still refuses to repay its depts in foreign currencies
- Norway is demanding a 262 % import duty on Danish cheese – as a little “post-colonial revenge” to their former occupants
General book information
Author: Michael Booth
Title: “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth about the Nordic Miracle”
publisher: Jonathan Cape