A Nordic Paradise: 9 Best Books to Understand Swedish Life and Culture

Centralbron, Stockholm, Sweden/Photo by Matias Larhag on Unsplash

Sweden stands as one of the most highly developed and socially conscious countries in the world. Renowned for its social safety net, low unemployment, and strong economy, Sweden – like other Nordic countries – has long enjoyed a relatively high standard of living and life expectancy in comparison to other developed nations. The “Swedish Model,” i.e. a highly regulated free market alongside a comprehensive welfare state, is a guidepost for progressives around the world.

For literary fans, the country is perhaps best known for the bleak and unsettling crime fiction that has come to be known as Nordic Noir. Although there are a bounty of well-drawn mysteries and thrillers in this vein, Swedish literature encompasses all genres. The books below, all written by Swedish authors, represent a slice of what the nation’s long-thriving literary community has to offer.

  • The cover of the book Hanna's Daughters

    Hanna's Daughters

    A Novel

    Hanna’s Daughters presents a broad and engaging view of one hundred years of Swedish history told through the eyes of three generations of Swedish women. Bestselling Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson presents an emotionally resonant family saga chronicling the lives of a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter across a century of love, loss, and sacrifice. It is an unsentimental yet poignant depiction of the complexities of family love and the mother-daughter relationship.

  • The cover of the book Let the Right One In

    Let the Right One In

    If you’ve only experienced the well-honed dread of Let the Right One In via its sturdy adaptations, do yourself a favor and pick up the novel. It’s a brilliantly conceived vampire novel at its base, but more than that, it is a powerful examination of isolation, bullying, and identity steeped in the existential dread that is often so much a part of Scandinavian literature. It also happens to be one of the best horror novels in recent memory.

  • The cover of the book The Saga of Gosta Berling

    The Saga of Gosta Berling

    Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and this sweeping historical epic is perhaps her best work. Set in Sweden in the 1820s, the novel centers on a defrocked minister, Gosta Berling, who watches his vices destroy his career. Berling soon finds himself at the estate of Magareta Celsing, embroiled in the political intrigue surrounding Celsing.

  • The cover of the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an instant bestseller – a modern mystery-thriller classic – and introduced one of 21st century literature’s most fascinating protagonists in tortured hacker Lisbeth Salander. The first entry in the Millenium Series centers on the forty-year-old disappearance of young Swedish socialite – what follows is an investigation that will unearth a dark family saga and startling web of corruption.

  • The cover of the book MAN ON THE BALCONY


    A Martin Beck Police Mystery (3)

    Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were the vanguard of Nordic Noir. Their mix of traditional crime fiction, grim realism, and political engagement paved the way for writers like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson. The Man on the Balcony is the third of ten novels chronicling the career of Martin Beck, who is on the trail of a pedophilic murderer. It is a chilling thriller and also among the couple’s best work.

  • The cover of the book Doctor Glas

    Doctor Glas

    A Novel

    This stark and brooding tale was met with an extraordinary amount of controversy after its initial publication in 1905. It has since taken its place as a masterpiece of Swedish literature. The novel focuses on the story of Doctor Glas, a lonely and introspective man, with a long simmering hostility for the local minister. When the minister’s wife tells Glas of her husband’s oppressive sexual appetites, Glas begins to plot the man’s murder.

  • The cover of the book Depths


    Henning Mankell is a towering figure in Swedish Literature, best known for his Kurt Wallander seriesWith Depths, Mankell delves into historical fiction with a tale of a Swedish navel engineer named Lars Tobiasson-Svartman who, during World War I, falls into a dangerous obsession with a beautiful woman living on an isolated island. Now leading a double life and lying to both his wife and his superiors, Lars tumbles deeper into a devastating pool of deception that threatens to engulf him completely.

  • The cover of the book Autumn


    This entry in an autobiographical quartet of books is based around the four seasons, and is an introspective, honest read. Autumn opens with a letter Knausgaard pens for his unborn daughter to introduce her to the world she will one day inhabit. With startling insight and precision, Knausgaard describes the daily life of his wife and children in rural Sweden alongside vivid descriptions of the seemingly mundane.

  • The cover of the book The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

    The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

    On his 100th birthday, Allan Karlsson escapes through the window of his nursing home and embarks on a series of increasingly absurd misadventures across Sweden. His geriatric hijinks are intermingled with recollections of his stunning life story ranging from dinners with soon-to-be Presidents, treks through the Himalayas, and an encounter with Winston Churchill. It’s a delightfully comical adventure and decidedly lighter than the majority of the fare on this list.