Sitzbook Review: ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People’ by Michael Booth

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Nyhavn, a scenic and crowded old harbor area of Copenhagen, Denmark. From my 2005 trip there.

I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m going to review (or at least talk about and share some quotes from) some of the books that I read this year.

This time I’m going to talk about The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. As far as non-fiction goes, this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while. It talks about the Scandinavian countries and how they work (and don’t work) in general. The subtitle of the book, “Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” hints at what it’s about, but it’s not really a takedown or anything.

Instead, the author, a sarcastic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny Brit who lives in Denmark, goes around to the different countries of Scandinavia, along with Iceland and Finland, and investigates why they score so high on many development, happiness, and economic indexes.

I especially found the chapters about Denmark interesting, as that’s where some of my ancestors came from, and I’ve spent a few months there visiting relatives and learning Danish.

When we look at the Scandinavian countries from the perspective of the US or Costa Rica, we tend to see them as monolithic and homogeneous, but the main takeaway of the book is that although they have many similarities, they are actually surprisingly different. And as for the idea of their utopia being a myth, well, there’s no perfect country in the world. But after reading this book, I became convinced that at least these countries are definitely trying to get there.

I also wanted to share some quotes that I thought were funny, interesting, or good examples of what the book was like.

First of all, the book talks a lot about Danish happiness, especially since it seems to top list after list of The World’s Happiest Countries. In fact, just last week it apparently did so again. This is especially interesting for me because the other country that seems to rank really highly on these lists is Costa Rica, my adopted country. I’ve written a lot about this topic on Costa Rica Outsider, my website about this country, so I won’t rehash that question here. But Booth’s thoughts about Danish happiness survey responses seem to echo a bit about what I think may also be going on in Costa Rica.

Here’s the quote, from page 113/114:

   “On the face of it, the Danes have considerably less to be happy about than most of us, yet, when asked, they still insist that they are the happiest of us all.
   What is one to make of this? Are the Danes really as happy as they claim? Or is this land of 12 million pigs telling porkies?
   The obvious answer to this is “Define happiness.’ If we are talking sombrero-wearing, heel-kicking, cocktail-umbrella joie de vivre, then the Danes to not score highly, and I suspect not even they would take their claims that far. But if we are talking about being contented with one’s lot, or (self-)satisfied, then the Danes do have a more convincing case to present.[…]
   I’ve mentioned my suspicion that this phenomenon has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Danes: aware that they have a reputation to maintain in these international questionnaires, they pretend to be happier than they actually are.[…]
   Here’s another convincing theory, posited by a Danish friend of mine: ‘We always come top of those surveys because they ask us at the beginning of the year what our expectations are,’ he said. ‘Then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.’
   Could that be the secret of the Danes’ contentedness? Low expectations? […] Perhaps Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, low-level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.”

So whereas he seems to think that the Danes’ “trick” to scoring well on these surveys is that they’re considering contentedness as a definition of “happiness,” I think that the Costa Ricans may also be actually measuring something different than happiness, namely complacency. But who knows.

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A bike I used for a nice outing in Denmark.

The second quote I wanted to share is about his time in Norway. I went to Norway nearly 20 years ago–wow, where did the time go?–and I’m sure that things have changed a fair amount since then. Nevertheless, I remember that it was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen, and it probably still is, although I’ve seen a lot of nice places in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the author was more interested in society than scenery, and he was in the country for their national day. On page 167, he observed the Norwegians’ enthusiasm for wearing their traditional costumes, saying:

   “As we have heard, you will not find a more fervent bunch of flag-wavers [referring to Denmark] outside of Pyongyang, but, sadly for them, the Danes would struggle to muster any kind of a national costume beyond jeans and a cycle helmet.
   So we are left with the Norwegians as the leading Nordic proponents of overt public nationalism in all its easily mocked glory. I rarely shy from the task of mocking easy targets but, as I mingle with the be-dirndled crowds on the streets of Oslo, gradually, quite unexpectedly, I begin to find my approach to the Norwegians and their 17 May celebrations transform.
   For one thing, it takes some chutzpah to pull on a pair of knickerbockers, wrap yourself in a great, ivory-colored cape, and stride out on to the streets of a twenty-first century European capital looking like an escapee from Middle Earth.”

Just thought that was funny.

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Speaking of (darkly) funny, this is a scene above some seats on a Danish train. Note that the shields bear the flags of Denmark (white cross on red) and Sweden (yellow cross on blue), and it doesn’t seem that the battle is going so well for the Swedes. So there may still be some pent-up aggression behind all that supposed happiness.

Next up is a speech characteristic that I noticed a lot in my time in Europe. It’s especially common in Denmark and Sweden, but I also noticed it during the years I lived in Germany (although it was much more common up north). It’s hard to explain, but I’ll let Booth do it. From page 241:

“A digression: we have heard how the Scandinavians are not especially chatty, but they do have some mysterious, non-linguistic ways of communicating which, as with the high-frequency clicks emitted by bats, are virtually inaudible to the rest of us. This is their portfolio of seemingly insignificant subvocal utterances, which I am only just now learning to decode. The most common is the brief, sharp intake of breath, which is used in combination with a slight grunt, to indicate a kind of agreement; something along the lines of a ‘yes, but.’ With some Danes this can be quite pronounced, and the first few times I found myself on the receiving end I grew alarmed and wondered if the person I was talking to was having some kind of fit.”

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A view from the roof of the City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. From my 2005 trip there.

Finally, the last quote that caught my attention was about Finland. Especially since I’m a teacher, I’ve recently heard a lot about how the Finnish school system is amazing, and how it’s basically the best in the world. This actually seems to be a part where the “myth” of Scandinavian utopia actually is true, and Booth investigates a bit more to find out the reasons behind the success of the Finnish system. On page 277, he says:

   “Equally important are the care and resources lavished on those doing the teaching. […] In Finland, teaching has been seen as a prestigious career since the earliest days of the country’s education system in the latter part of the nineteenth century, because teachers played a key role in the country’s emergence as an independent nation. It is almost impossible to conceive of such a scenario when I recall the ragbag of psychopaths and social misfits who guided my own education, but Finland is a country in which teachers have long been national heroes, at the forefront of defining and disseminating their country’s blossoming self-image. They were nothing less than the nation’s intellectual freedom fighters.[…]
   Teaching remains an attractive career. Over a quarter of Finnish graduates see teaching as their top option. Unlike in the US or UK, where it is not unheard of for teacher-training applicants to be semi-literate, in Finland teaching attracts the brightest students.[…]
   In Finland, teacher-training courses can be more difficult to get on to than those in law or medicine. They are routinely oversubscribed by a factor of ten, sometimes much more. At the University of Helsinki a couple of years ago they had 2,400 applications for the 120 places on a master’s programme. Ever since 1970, all Finnish teachers have been required to study to master’s level with state support.”

He goes on a lot more to consider what it would look like if other countries supported their teachers all the way through a master’s degree, but I’ll let you read the book yourself if you’d like to hear more.

Needless to say, this book was right up my alley and I thought it was immensely interesting. I’d give it a 16/17 in terms of the Sitzblog Non-Fiction Rating Scale.

Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!

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