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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth Paperback – October 7, 2008
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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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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
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Right off the bat, Atwood begins explaining facts that to me, and likely to others, were unknown and intrigued me to read more. For instance, she brings the notion up of how animals and humans seek fairness and equality amongst one another. In order for us to interact properly we seek that we are always reciprocated for our actions in an equal value or manner of another person. Here, she begins uses one of her many examples that reiterate her point in which a study of animals proves that this primitive theory is actually true. Another highlight of her first initial introduction is that debt isn't always how we perceive it to be. It can be something as simple as returning a favor unto someone, repaying your parents for what they have done for you, or even marriage. That being said, debt as we know it today takes numerous forms that we most likely weren't aware of beforehand.
Moreover, she begins to incorporate various allusions to which some are very common to most readers and others may require research in order to understand. Some common examples being Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge and how the perceptions of these characters today are completely inaccurate from how they originated and what they signify. Simple allusions like these makes the reader get a new perspective into how debt and the topic of sin have been connected and going side by side for an immeasurable amount of time. Before, debt was considered to be one of the worst sins one could commit to; however, nowadays it is something that everyone must go through. Her explanation of how history connects debt to the Christian religion is fascinating because once again it shatters all preconceived notions of the mere thought of debt.
Furthermore, Atwood begins to analyze the numerous different types of debt and how the relationship between creditor and debtor begins to work. Whether this be through a mortgage, pawn shops, or something else. But, more importantly she explains that debt is something that has always existed, "without memory, there is no debt...without story, there is not debt" (page 81) and will continue to exist because of the mere fact that we have memory. There is always something to needs to be paid back, or returned to the creditor who had given you the opportunity. Also, she begins expanding upon the fact that wealth brings us to only be consumed by ourselves and not have a care for what is going on around us. She explains this through the allusion of using Ebenezer Scrooge once more; however, she redoes the story of how he realizes that its wrong to keep everything for himself. It was an innovative way to display the same type of moral message through her idea of modern day society.
In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone--the reason being that she did not intend her audience to be within a specific range of people, anyone can understand what she has written about. She analyzed, explained, and related every possible aspect of debt to show its connections to history, people, and you along with summing it all up and displaying what it all means. I enjoyed her way of including numerous allusions to reiterate her main points which made it easier to understand as well. Atwood, in my opinion did a splendid job on this work because she opened my mind and eyes to the topic of debt and wealth that I had no prior knowledge of beforehand.
She imprints in the readers mind the shadowy subjects of revenge, debtors' prisons, and debts of honour which cannot be repaid by money, at this point things are looking bleak for the debtor. Atwood observes that, "In the shadowland of borrowing and lending, just as there is no limits set to the nature of and size of the debt, so there are no limits set to the nature and grisliness of nonpayment" (p134). Making the reader's imagination run wild wondering just how grisly things could get.
After reading Payback I wondered if she could have some psychic abilities. It appeared that she brilliantly predicted the economic meltdown that the entire world was starting to experience when the book was released in 2008. Do not assume that this narrative is about debt management, the national debt or mafia revenges, if you are then you should think again. There were many times throughout the book she may converge on these subjects but do not mistake it as a boring book about finances. She delightfully intrigues the reader by taking them on a simplistic journey using her own thought process. She offers debt from different angles such as; having an entertainment value. The reader is exposed to the concept of the different roles that debt and credit offer in operas, stories and films. After all, without debt or credit I think the entertainment world would be a dull and boring place. There were many times the examples she used made perfect sense to me even though I had never thought of them that way until reading this book. Her creative approach takes readers on an in depth journey of one's own debt and even brings up the question if our mere existence could be considered a debt. Not something that we would naturally ask ourselves but it is a good question.
Even though, Atwood is best known for her novels and poems she has done an amazing job in presenting this non-fiction, eye-opening approach to the different types of debts, the balancing of those debts and finally paying them back. She shares her curiosity of debt and credit as well as owing and repayment with a clever, smart, honest, witty and at times sarcastic approach. She truly makes a person re-evaluate their personal values. It is impossible not to discover that the fundamental parts of human nature are to find credit, incur debt, and then have to repay debt, in one way or other. These are scary times as we observe global warming, environmental issues, and financial turmoil this all results in potential for a huge credit imbalance. Unfortunately a small percentage of people hold the majority of the wealth. Unfairness is reaching a boiling point on a national and economic level. I fear that if society continues down this path of self-destruction that we are heading towards an enormous payback. Payback has its very unnerving moments but it is extremely entertaining at the same time.
This book would be great for anyone new to the subject of debt (and who is also interested in literature), since it's a really easy read and she relates the theoretical workings of debt to real-world events and stories. However, for anyone who has any background knowledge on the subject, this book won't add anything new.