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The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth is a 2014 nonfiction book detailing the author’s exploration of the cultural belief that Scandinavia is a utopia.

I picked up this book at the library (on Amazon) after hanging out with Norwegian backpackers in an old passenger van for nearly 6 hours on the Dalton Highway in Alaska. We had long, interesting conversations about America, Norway, and so on. Also, the book had a blurb claiming that it was “as if Bill Bryson went to Scandinavia” – so I was sold.

The author extensively traveled through five Nordic countries – Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland – to gain a deeper understanding of why a region that is fairly small in population produces so many cultural exports and is held in such high regard by much of the world.

What I Liked

I liked that the author was a bit of a trustworthy third-party traveler (he’s British) but also had family ties to get insight on a deeper level (his wife is Danish and he’s lived in Denmark long enough to develop deep friendships), so it wasn’t like he was a random traveler forming first impressions and reinforcing stereotypes.

I liked that the author had a background in journalism, so he knew how to spot a good source and how to track down necessary experts.

I liked that he visited several countries and contrasted them with each other. The format made the insights about the entire region a bit clearer.

I also liked that he traveled quite a bit within each country. Everyone knows that their own country’s capital / largest city does not represent the country / region at large, so I was glad that he got out of Copenhagen / Oslo / Stockholm / Helsinki / Reykjavik.

The book is funny and engaging – not on a Bill Bryson level, but very readable.

What I Did Not Like

Not a whole lot – it was a good travel book. On any controversial points, he was quick to place caveats and provide nuance.

Takeaways

Every country has major issues. There is no utopia on Earth. There are always tradeoffs. The important part is to acknowledge the tradeoffs and work to minimize the downsides and maximize the upsides.

Scandinavian countries are small – especially coming as a reader from the US. Sweden is ~10 million – that’s the size of my state of Georgia. Norway, Finland, and Denmark are ~5.5 million each – that’s the size of South Carolina, Alabama, or Minnesota. They are all smaller than world-famous US states like Indiana, Tennessee, and Maryland.

And then there’s Iceland…which has ~376,000 people. Have you ever heard of Davenport, Iowa; Fort Collins, Colorado; or Ocala, Florida? No? Well, all those metro areas are bigger than Iceland.

The Scandinavian countries are not big-S Scary Socialist. Like nearly every country on Earth, they all have diversified economies based on free market, capitalist system that are integrated into the global free trading system. They do have above-average government spending with universal social programs, but even there, they don’t quite live up to their stereotypes and have wide variation within them.

Their wealth comes from a mixture of luck, planning, and hard work. Norway has oil – and lots of it for a nation of 5 million. They’ve planned & used it well though. Denmark has exploited EU agricultural rules to be a mega-supplier of hogs, chickens, etc to the EU market. Sweden has major natural resources and a tradition of well-run mega corporations. Finland continually jumps on various high-tech trends while Iceland…exploits the fact that it’s a sovereign state with only 376,000 people and has a ton of free, geothermal energy.

Culture also operates on a spectrum. Community vs Individualism is not a binary choice, it’s a spectrum that varies based on social circles.

Many times, the best way to understand your own country is to learn about others. I don’t want the US to “be Scandinavian” any more than I want Scandinavia to “be American”. But there’s plenty that each could learn from each other (and some that’s already reflected in some US states).

By Nate

I'm Nate Shivar - I live in Atlanta and love exploring the city, outdoors, books & Internet. Read about me, my Now page, or my work.

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