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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2007)

by Margaret Atwood

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7242421,686 (3.85)55
Collected here, the Massey Lectures from legendary novelist Margaret Atwood investigate the highly topical subject of debt, exploring debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.
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» See also 55 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Charming and thought-provoking. Agree with AltheaAnn that the last chapter took away from that a bit. ( )
  libraryhead | Dec 19, 2019 |
I found this a very interesting view on Debt (financial and other) and man's attitude to it through the ages. Atwood explores it in the context of ancient civilizations and justice and then moves more into the modern era and considers the good and bad sides of debt. I was intrigued by the view that the requirement for money and capital flow that arose with the industrial revolution and capitalism changed our attitudes to debt radically. She also comes to the conclusion that money (rather than love) is often the driving force for change and narrative development in the great novels (Little Dorrit and Vanity Fair are the examples that spring to mind).
The last chapter with her updating Scrooge to see a global view of man's debt to the world felt a bit preachy but was though provoking.

Maybe because it's based on lectures, I did find that the whole book rambled slightly but as I've indicated contains many interesting pieces of information and different views on debt. ( )
  jbennett | May 18, 2016 |
terrific ( )
  ChrisNewton | Mar 18, 2016 |
Look! I read a non-fiction book!
Yes, I usually read fiction books, and non-fiction in magazine or journal articles. Ironically, this non-fiction book (which I liked very much) reminded me why. Most non-fiction is just not written in a style that encourages long-form reading. Atwood is an exception – probably correlated with her being a consummate fiction writer.

The writing here is engaging and consistently interesting. It’s almost like sitting down to dinner with a chatty Atwood, as she digresses on subjects near and dear to her heart.

Atwood is considering the human concept of debt – how and why we have the feeling of “owing” someone – the whole idea of obligation. Her thoughts draw on her not-inconsiderable personal knowledge and research, as she discusses her theme as it appears in history, religion, literature and anthropology.

The first four chapters are 5-star. Unfortunately, the final chapter, largely taken up with a didactic allegory, gets very, very preachy. (And I mean Sheri-S.-Tepper levels of preachy.) It wasn’t necessary – the content of the first four chapters got the point across very clearly, already. I’m already converted; so the finale felt a bit patronizing.
( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
Payback. Debt and the shadow side of wealth is the result, in book form, of the five lectures Margaret Atwood delivered for the CBC Massey Lectures Series in 2008. Each lecture explores the way debt is part of literary works.

In as far as debt and finance are interesting topics, the talks put the spotlight on the financial aspect of literary works, most of which readers are all familiar. Well-known works featuring examples of avarice, greed and envy are paraded along with many other works, which are shown to contain elements related to the world of finance.

The result is a very eclectic compilation of ideas, which often feels stretched or far-fetched. There is no clear development or progression, merely a piling of often unconnected ideas. As in many literary works, finance and debts are possibly minor motives, forefronting the issue seemingly deflects the theme of many novels. For instance, Atwood writes "When I was young and simple, I thought the nineteenth century novel was driven by love; but now, in my more complicated riper years, I see that it's also driven by money, which indeed hold a more central place in it than love does." She goes on to show that in Wuthering Heights Heathcliffe's victory in love is won through the financial ruin of Linton. Regardless of how interesting that might be, it is doubtful that many people will want to reread Wuthering Heights from that point of view.

Besides exploring debt and finance as themes in literature, Atwood also extensively looks at the way language deals with money matters. She illustrates the origin and way nineteenth century authors used the word "ruin", and uses The Pilgrim's Progress to show how "death washes away all debt". There are many literary works in which contracts bind characters to a deathly bond, and Atwood uses both well-known and lesser literary works or fairytales to demonstrate this. Payback is also rich in detail. For example, how many readers would realize that Ebenezer Scrooge's given name, "Ebenezer" means "rock that helps" showing that Scrooge has the good in him all the while (p.99).

It is obvious that Atwood had no shortage of material to choose from. In fact, the wealth of material presented is the weakness of the book. There are far too many examples, to make Payback and pleasant read. Each page contains multiple examples from very different genre and periods. This dazzling of snippets of information keeps the author from more in-depth reflection. The author has also branched out too much, by including virtually all aspects of finance, and taking on all of world literature. Thus, the theme has become too broad, and instead of a well-paced contemplation, the book reads as a light, too light, entertainment. It should be remembered that these are not essays, but lectures, probably for an audience not used to too much depth. ( )
  edwinbcn | Oct 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Atwood's project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness.
Payback broaches an urgent topic in a way that won't make your eyes glaze over.
added by stephmo | editMedia Culture, Megan Yarrow (Jan 8, 2009)
In short, Margaret Atwood’s deeply enjoyable contemplation of debt comes from the same stable as the classic Presbyterian sermon about the sinners burning in hell who call out, ‘Lord, lord, we didnae ken.’ To which God replies, ‘Ah weel, ye ken noo!’
Because Atwood constantly veers off in new directions she doesn't always give herself time to sink her claws deep into a topic. The result is that, although Payback is packed with information, it can seem oddly thin.
Payback is a stimulating, learned and stylish read from an eminent author writing from a heartfelt perspective.

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For Graeme and Jess,
and Matthew and Graeme the younger
Lecture One: Ancient Balances--This chapter is dedicated to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where my interests in Egyptian coffins was awakened when I was nine; to my father, Dr. C. E. Atwood, through whom I read The Water Babies; and to all the children I babysat and watched over at summer camps and in the home -- stern teachers in the ways of tit-for-tat.
Lecture Two: Debt and Sin--This chapter is dedicated to Aileen Christianson of Scotland, to Valerie Martin of the United States, and to Alice Miunro of Canada -- experts on sin and debt, all. Also to my mother, Margaret K. Atwood, and to my aunt, Joyce Barkhouse, for the insights they have provided on living within your means.
Lecture Three: Debt as Plot--This chapter is dedicated to Miss Bessie B. Billings and Miss Florence Smedley, my English teachers at Leaside HIgh School in Toronto, where I first read The Mill and the Floss;
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Canadian nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton had an odd bill presented to him on his twenty-first birthday.
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