Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Book - 2008
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Now a major motion picture

Official selection: 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is like air -- something we take for granted until things go wrong.

Payback is not a book about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from preliterate times to the present day through the stories we tell each other, through our concepts of balance, revenge, and sin, and in the way we form our social relationships, Atwood shows that the idea of what we owe one another -- in other words, debt -- is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.

Publisher: Toronto : Anansi, 2008
ISBN: 9780887848100
Branch Call Number: 306.3 A88p
Characteristics: 230 pages ; 20 cm
Alternative Title: Payback


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A great and timely topic – and prescient – this book was published just before the global economic crisis hit most of us. While I don’t like Margaret Atwood’s fiction, her non-fiction totally rocks and her eloquence is rather sublime as she explores the economic, political, literary, and cultural history of debt. Part of a great series of books – the CBC Massey Lectures – that I’m always impressed with. I loved this book so much that I bought it! (submitted by JF)

Jun 08, 2018

I listened to this audio some time ago, and I wanted to say that she presented some really interesting ideas. I enjoyed it. However, listening to her speaking is not the best, she is an author. Takes patience to listen to someone who is not a really charismatic speaker.
But, certainly worth the time investment and you can skip by what might not be so interesting or relevant.

May 09, 2018

Well written essays about how we think about money and debt. Worth while read if your an Atwood lover.

Cdnbookworm May 18, 2011

This book has been billed as a look at the literary side of debt, but it is much more than that. It does indeed look at how debt has appeared in literature, including both financial debt and social debt, but it also looks at the history and meaning of debt itself. Atwood talks repeatedly about the balance that is a natural part of debt: for every debtor a creditor. She talks about historical practices around debt forgiveness and what that meant to society. She talks about the debt we owe the environment for what we have taken from it without giving back and how that debt is now being called in. Throughout this book she shows a wonderful sense of humour, dry and witty that had me laughing out loud.
This book is important, not just because of the times we are in, but because of the message it has for humanity and the way that the role of debt is explained clearly for even the financially illiterate to understand.
This book is part of the CBC Massey Lecture series and was a finalist for the OLA Evergreen Award.

May 05, 2011

A well written book, as expected from Margaret Atwood. However, while it was intellectually interesting, I did not really find it that engaging or compelling. So not a page-turner for me.

May 02, 2011

Margaret Atwood chose the debt, and the interdependent relationship between debtor and creditor, as the subject of her 2008 Vincent Massey lecture series. First off, she considers the meaning of ‘Ancient Balances’ arguing that people’s sense of fairness, justice and the idea of weighing or balancing a person’s deeds (good and evil) are re-occurring constructs through time. Using examples from ancient Egyptian, South American, Christian, Greek, and Roman civilizations she also finds examples of common symbols – such as the scales, justice being blind or blind folded and revenge being meted out by Furies.

Given the recent economic and financial downturn and judging by media attention, the theme of debt, and the idea that it is ‘bad’, has once again become a serious concern in western society though the religious aspect is perhaps less pronounced in these modern times.

In order for a society to function smoothly, goods and services must be distributed fairly in the eyes of those doing the trading - goods must be traded, rather than taken. [Jane Jacobs concept]. The notion of lending and paying back results. This is not purely an economic concept, it is also a social and moral concept as people also keep track of who owes and who is owed favours.
Atwood introduces the concept of how a successful capitalist can be a creditor in the financial sense, but a debtor in the moral sense – particularly in terms of the environment. Just as money must flow to keep the economy and the financial systems well oiled and productive so too must good deeds and gifts to keep the social system in balance.

In modern times, the view that if a person feels they are owed something, they can choose either to ‘exact revenge’ or gain justice through the courts of law – law being a system developed by society to avoid the effects of ‘tit-for-tat’, danger of escalating violence cased by revenge. Given the view that revenge (meaning to re-liberate oneself) is an irrational, obsessive behaviour, in a modern society, people must learn to acknowledge it, and then choose how to act on those feelings. Atwood posits that mercy/forgiveness is the only truly effective solution to this circle, calling it “the antidote to revenge” which is like “liberation from a heavy chain”.

Review of themes of debt in popular English literature, religion and mythology.

Erudite, timely, well researched and composed, these essays pull together several concepts into a seamless, well argued narrative that’s easy to follow yet also makes one ponder and think. There are lots of asides and personal anecdotes (such as recurring comments about pawn shops) that help to keep the pace interesting and connected but not overly dry. The fact that most of the literary examples, such as The Merchant of Venice, are well known keeps the reader engaged but they are also analysed in new and perceptive ways, making the material seem fresh.

Ancient Balances
Debt and Sin
Debt as Plot
The Shadow Side

Dec 16, 2010

Book Club - Mar. 2010

Dec 04, 2009

I actually listened to the lecture series as a CBC podcast, but the book was still worth reading.
Atwood's wit is entertaining as ever, and she offers some fascinating insight into the complex underpinnings of the concepts of money and debt that few people ever think about, let alone question. Great fun to read.

Oct 13, 2009

Not great. Some interesting facts and mildly entertaining discussion about debt.


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Dec 29, 2008

Canadian nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton had an odd bill presented to him on his twenty-first birthday. It was a record kept by his father of all the expenses connected with young Ernest's childhood and youth, including the fee charged by the doctor for delivering him. Even more oddly, Ernest is said to have paid it. I used to think that Mr. Seton Senior was a jerk, but I'm wondering, What if he was -- in principle -- right? Are we in debt to anyone or anything for the bare fact of our existence? If so, what do we owe, and to whom or to what? And how should we pay?

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