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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth Paperback – October 7, 2008


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press; Fourth Impression edition (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887848001
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887848001
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #572,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful mélange of personal reminiscences, literary walkabout, moral preachment, timely political argument, economic history and theological query, all bound together with wry wit and careful though casual-seeming research. Every debt comes with a date on which payment is due, Atwood observes on this conversational stroll, from the homely and familiar notion of fairness and notion of equivalent values in Kingsley's Water Babies to the thornier connection between debt and sin, memory and redemption in Aeschylus's Eumenides. Any debt involves a story line, Atwood points out as she leads the reader into the nineteenth century [when] debt as plot really rages through the fictional pages, and ruin is financial for men, but sexual for women. Things get even darker on the shadow side where the nastier forms of debt and credit—debtors' prisons, loan sharks and rebellions—abide. Atwood is encyclopedic in her range, following threads wherever they lead—credit cards and computer programs, Sin Eaters, Saint Nicholas, Star Trek, the history of pawnshops and of taxation, Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and Dante's Divine Comedy, Christ and Faust—and a consistently captivating storyteller. (Nov.)
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Review

Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful mélange of personal reminiscences, literary walkabout, moral preachment, timely political argument, economic history and theological query, all bound together with wry wit and careful though casual-seeming research....Atwood is encyclopedic in her range, following threads wherever they lead--credit cards and computer programs, Sin Eaters, Saint Nicholas, Star Trek, the history of pawnshops and of taxation, Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and Dante's Divine Comedy, Christ and Faust--and a consistently captivating storyteller. --Publishers Weekly, starred review, September 29, 2008

In her witty, acutely argued and almost freakishly prescient new book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth Margaret Atwood reminds us that debt is not just a political and economic issue. It's not just a matter for CEOs, heads of state, hedge fund managers or people with mortgages--sub-prime or otherwise. Debt is a cultural issue....Payback plugs a huge hole in our society-wide contemplation of the current financial crisis. In so many discussions of the ongoing mess in global markets, there is little mention of the venerable cultural ideas that underlie borrowing and lending.... All of this is presented, of course, not as something dry and scholarly, but as an arch--even, at times, ornery--argument that is vintage Atwood. --Chicago Tribune

More About the Author

MARGARET ATWOOD, whose work has been published in over thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; and her most recent, Oryx and Crake, shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Customer Reviews

In other words, she knows how to tell a good story.
Christopher Richards
Atwood explains early in the book that the idea of debt intrigued and mystified her from when she was a kid and her writing the book is a way of exploring it more.
DesignsbyDanyette
For such a serious subject this is an entertaining, delightful read.
chris badenmayer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 20, 2008
Format: Paperback
What could be more timely, in these economically unstable days, than a discussion about debt?

The essays in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth were presented as a series of radio lectures in Canada in November 2008. While I often enjoy the non-fiction writings of writers who are more famous for their novels (Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, among others), such collections are usually on a variety of topics or on a fiction-related topic such as writing. In Margaret Atwood's case though, she has taken on the subject of debt, although not exclusively financial debt.

Starting with a history of debt that is sprinkled with childhood memories of Scrooge McDuck and her first bank account, she examines the morality of owing other people. Using examples from literature and from nature, Atwood explores the universality of the concept of fairness. When capuchin monkeys realize that when one of their group is being rewarded with juicy grapes while the rest of them are being rewarded for the same work with lesser treats, they know it's a rotten deal and they rebel.

Atwood looks at how changing attitudes toward debt have affected the way we look at debt in literature. In Shakespeare's A Merchant of Venice, for example, Shylock is a moneylender, which is a necessary, but not very respectable profession. Now one of the most respected professions is banking, which of course, is mainly moneylending.

Debt isn't just about money. Atwood explores the concept of forgiveness, such as when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison and knew he had to forgive those who'd persecuted him over the years and he had to do it before he walked out of the prison grounds. Otherwise he would carry those resentments with him forever.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Matt Holbert on November 29, 2008
Format: Paperback
The last chapter of this book should be required reading in the upcoming holiday weeks. Atwood does a marvelous job of distilling the human predicament into something that even the most systems-challenged among us can understand -- and hopefully act upon.

It was with some amusement that I read the review of this book by The Economist magazine. The first sentence of the review: "Without debt there would be no capitalism; mankind would be living in caves and eating whatever it killed." Somehow I missed the part in the book where it said that primitivism was the route that society should have followed. It is ironic that if we continue to follow the current system's -- and The Economist's -- ideology of unlimited growth, we will end up living in caves and eating whatever we kill. It is hard to make the case that the dominant economic system has given us -- and I mean all of us -- much freedom. (See Mindful Economics: How the US Economy Works, Why it Matters, and How it Could be Different for an excellent treatise on the "system.") As Atwood illustrates with her Scrooge Nouveau tale in the last chapter, any freedom we had is rapidly being sucked from us as a result of the way we have conducted ourselves the last few hundred years.

Comments by other readers that this book did not provide answers reminded me that Atwood tells the story of Solon (p. 182 & 183). Solon solves "the nation's problems by cancelling the massive debt structure that has enriched some, but impoverished everyone else." Unless a "jubilee" of this nature takes place in short order, most countries will be struck in the doldrums for generations to come.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Story Circle Book Reviews on December 8, 2008
Format: Paperback
Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth arrives at an amazingly opportune time, when families are watching jobs and mortgages implode, corporations and communities are running out of credit, and the global economic system is undergoing a meltdown--all because of debt. It is, truly, payback time. And while Atwood's book was completed before the Credit Crash of August, 2008, readers will have that ongoing dramatic scenario fresh in their minds as they follow her investigations into the meaning of debt. "Like air," she says, "it's all around us, but we never think about it unless something goes wrong with the supply." Something has gone wrong, and it's time--past time--to give it some very serious thought. This is just what Atwood does, in a wry, witty, wonderful dance of ideas about debt and its importance in human cultures.

A word of caution for starters, though: if you're looking for suggestions for getting out of the debt mess you're in, you've come to the wrong book. Payback is not a how-to, or even a how-not-to. It is a how-we-got-here, a how-this-is, a how-to-think-about-it, an intellectual (sometimes maddeningly so) journey into the meaning of debt. Atwood examines debt as a metaphor for all our obligations to one another; debt and sin; debt as a literary subtext in everything from Mephistopheles and Vanity Fair to A Christmas Carol; unpaid and unpayable debt; and the "debtor/creditor twinship." When you stop to think about it (and you do stop, and you do think, under Atwood's spell), debt and credit underlie everything under our sun and beyond, even our redemptive and retributive notions of Heaven and Hell. "In Heaven," Atwood writes, "there are no debts--all have been paid, one way or another." Hell is a different story.
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