Payback : debt and the shadow side of wealth

by Margaret Atwood

Paperback, 2008

Status

Available

Publication

Toronto : Anansi, 2008.

Description

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.

Media reviews

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.
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Payback broaches an urgent topic in a way that won't make your eyes glaze over.
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.
Does Atwood believe in Heaven, Hell, the soul, or life and debt after death? It's hard to tell. Her purpose is to raise questions, and she does this in Payback with all the serious intellectual playfulness that we associate with her novels.
There is enough of this witty and discursive analysis to make you genuinely curious about where Atwood is heading -- and to make you wish, finally, she hadn't headed anywhere. For in the final pages of "Payback," the mystery of debt is quite summarily solved, and the solution is far less interesting than the problem.
In Atwood’s capable hands debt becomes a metaphor for the realties of culture, from its infancy oh-so-many a millennia ago to the current predicament our entire world finds itself in today.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bruchu
Interesting But No New Insights

I guess it would be a stretch to expect something revolutionary about economics from a literary writer. "Payback" is more of a philosophical and philological analysis of debt and credit as opposed to a theoretical analysis which again, you would not expect from a Margaret Atwood.

Atwood's humanist approach is refreshing. What she is really seeking to explore is why and how the system of credit affects and is influenced by human traits of desire, fear, and trust. The first few chapters on the classical texts of the Bible, or Dickens, or Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" are good. The last chapter on Scrooge is too moralistic bordering on elitism.

As part of the Massey Lectures series, I thought this was a good addition. Certainly innovative in having a literary writer analyzing a topic such as economics. Definitely an interesting read, both for the topic and because of the writer.
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LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
This is a fascinating book for a number of reasons:

1. Atwood is a gifted fiction writer and poet who brings her writing skill to bear on this non-fiction topic.
2. The topic itself is quite apropos in our current economic climate.
3. Atwood’s knowledge of literature provides the her with scads of illustrative material to draw from.
4. Atwood manages to make such a serious topic entertaining, readable, and thought-provoking.

This is not a self-help book on personal finance. It’s an exploration of the role that debt has played in our society throughout history. While the whole book is interesting, the ending is chilling. Using the Scrooge narrative as a framework, the author of Oryx and Crake revisits her apocalyptic vision when considering the debt we owe to our environment.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
What happens when you take a skilled writer, teacher and editor with a bent toward social activism and give her a topic like debt to present as the Massey Lectures on CBC in November 2008? You get this book: an essay in 5 chapters that explores the topic of fairness, morality, and social attitudes about debt and wealth over the ages.

This is not a look at debt from the perspective of an economist, banker, or anyone in the finance world. Nor is it a 'how to' book, as in how to stay out debt, or recover from overwhelming debt.

Instead it is a book that deals with the narrative of debt and wealth through the ages....from ancient times to current times, as well as from the perspective of a child to death bed thinking.

In this time of financial crises, as we all stand around wringing our hands wondering when will we hit bottom, this book provides a means to step back and look at debt and paybacks from a different perspective. It's not terribly refreshing. In fact it's scary in some ways I had not thought about.

The book is drawn with literary references and analogie along with the author's memories and experiences in learning about debt and paybacks. And it is peppered with Margaret's signature dark humor and basic common sense.
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LibraryThing member thebookpile
The 2008 Massey Lectures are about debt and are delivered by Margaret Atwood. This review is an attempt at a more eloquent way of saying "Worst. Massey Lectures. Ever."

With the Masseys, you have a tradition of experts being invited to deliver a series of lectures about the stuff they really know about. Examples from my own bookshelf include Martin Luther King Jr. about the civil rights movement (1967), Noam Chomsky about controlling dissent in democratic societies (1988), and Stephen Lewis about AIDS in Africa (2005).

And now Margaret Atwood on...debt? I gave it a chance but it just doesn't work.

To top things off, I got excited when I saw that the second lecture mentioned Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs. My hopes were quickly dashed as Atwood completely misinterpreted what Jacobs wrote, and then went off on this incorrect bearing for half of the lecture. It's downright embarrassing. It's like she read Jacobs' book years ago and didn't bother to go back to make sure her memories of it were correct.

She makes attempts at joking, which seem very out of place in such lectures. Even then, they might have worked had they actually been funny. The jokes feel like padding; they're that unnecessary. An example (p. 57), in which she mentions Emile Zola's novel, Germinal:

"You'll be pleased to learn that there's a famous riot scene in which the wives and daughters get their full revenge, and the genital organs of the store owner are skewered on a stick that's carried in triumphant procession through the streets - a crude form of entertainment, granted, but there was no TV then."

Was it really necessary to add that last bit? It's lazy, it's not funny, and it adds nothing to the lecture at all.

The jokes, while irritating, aren't as insulting as some of the other bits. In the third lecture, "Debt as Plot", she suggests that we are tempted to go into debt because it keeps the excitement in our lives:

"Could it be that some people get into debt because, like speeding on a motorbike, it adds an adrenaline hit to their otherwise humdrum lives? When the bailiffs are knocking at the door and the lights go off because you didn't pay the hydro and the bank's threatening to foreclose, at least you can't complain of ennui."

That makes for great storytelling but it adds nothing to the understanding of causes and effects of debt. Margaret Atwood may be able to laugh off debt by saying that her father had to pawn his fountain pen back in the late 1930s; the rest of us wouldn't mind a bit more insight from someone with an understanding of the causes and effects of the current financial meltdown, as well as those past (and many of us have more harrowing family stories of the great depression than having a family member *gasp* pawning a fountain pen).

In the past, the Massey Lectures have been given by experts sharing their knowledge about a topic. This year, Margaret Atwood is learning about debt on the spot. Her intro says it all:

"The motive for this book is curiosity - mine - and my hope is that the writing of it will allow me to explore a subject I know little about, but which for this reason intrigues me. That subject is debt."

Given the current economic situation, I can't think of a better topic to address in this year's Masseys. I also can't think of a worse person to broach that subject than Margaret Atwood.
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LibraryThing member stephmo
Ms. Atwood's book would better be subtitled, "A Literature Review in Which Debt as Theme is Studied and Some Mentions Outside of Literature are Briefly Mentioned and a Last Chapter Nearly Goes Off the Rails."

That being said, for fans of Shakespeare, 18th- and 19th-century literature, mythology and comparative religion, Ms. Atwood certainly mines a lot of information on the nature of debt and debtors. If one's never gotten the scoop on the evils of mills and millers or has ever wondered exactly what the upside of being a sin-eater might be, there are interesting tidbits to be found. There's a rather healthy dose of Faust (both Marlow's and Goethe's) and perhaps too much time spent on Scrooge. It is most certainly worth reading the first 4 chapters of the book as literature review for these pieces.

And as interesting as all of these anecdotes may sound as a literature review, it doesn't really gel as promised into an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. I suppose one out of three ain't bad - I could possibly bump it to two out of three by giving society and religion a generous "halfway there" treatment due to a loose assortment of anecdotes and factoids and vague statements offered as fact.

As to the last chapter going off the rails, I knew I was in trouble when Ms. Atwood decided to use the "imagine Scrooge, only updated!" as her metaphor. I honestly believe she thought she was being clever. After umpteen modern retellings of the Scrooge story that have included everything from Scrooged to the cast of Married with Children, one has to wonder which of her friends couldn't tell her that this was a path best left alone. Worse yet, it simply ended up a lecture on environmentalism in which she decided that real debt was a debt to earth. While it is a lovely sentiment, it wasn't at all in line with the rest of the book (it should be a separate lecture altogether).
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LibraryThing member melonbrawl
Atwood's conversational approach makes this book a pleasure to just sit down and read. I enjoyed her literary exploration of the topic as much as her historical exploration; the re-envisioning of Scrooge as a 21st-century businessman was a real treat.
LibraryThing member cdawn
I got tired of Scrooge by the end, but the book was filled with curious and enlightening ideas about the third leg of the forbidden topics of sex, religion and money. Will my ex ever find it in himself to wipe the slate clean on that stupid promissory note?
LibraryThing member mahallett
very enjoyable. atwood has a very stupid chuckle which is kind of endearing. i don't want to live with it but okay for a bit. i enjoyed the first 4 but the last put me off. i have very little time for dickens, especially scrooge and it was a modern arrangement of scrooge.
LibraryThing member lauranav
This book is the compilation of Atwood's lectures for the Massey Lectures series in 2008. I found the book a comfortable read, humorous and thoughtful about an interesting subject.

I believe there are 3 avenues to enjoying this book. The first is a general overview of debt touching on civilization, religion, and nature. This is not a scientific tome, it is much more interesting to read, but provides a number of interpretations and ideas that you could look into further if you found it interesting.

Second is a fun romp through literature from the perspective of debt. She talks about how she used to think the nineteenth century novels were driven by love, but just a quick survey of the literature shows how much of it is really driven by debt. I immediately thought of Sense and Sensibility. We wouldn't have much of a story if the older son would provide for the girls as his father asked. She touches on a number of novels, plays, characters, plot points, and more.

The third is from an environmental perspective. I think this is the weaker aspect in the presentation and the points she tries to make. She does, however, highlight some things that bear thinking about. Even if the state of the world isn't all man's fault, there is reason to believe the technological ride won't continue as profitable as it has.
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LibraryThing member whistlerclaire
If you can, get the audiobook. Atwood's dry humour is even better with her reading.
LibraryThing member owenre
Interesting and unexpected, however not riveting and it felt a little bit contrived. I tried out the topic as Atwood saw it at dinner last night and had the same reaction - "What?" "Oh." Next topic.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Not bad, but not what I expected. It discusses 'payback' as a philosophical and moral issue, and uses Dr Faustus and Ebenezer Scrooge as leitmotives to discuss it. It's much more literary than I expected. I guess I thought it would be tackled from a much more economic point of view.
LibraryThing member Keith1962edwards
Payback by Margaret Atwood

I read this book for a VPL participated book club and was the very first Margaret Atwood book i had ever read.

I never was much into spending time in reading fiction books, once i had become a certain age as i was influenced with wanting to understand what was considered the factual events of 'history'.

So i was very impressed with this book, as Margaret was very thorough and had kept my interest throughout the book of a well researched and referenced historical aspect of our history.

Keith Edwards
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
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.
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LibraryThing member jbennett
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.
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LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
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.
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LibraryThing member VisibleGhost
My Atwood in April turned into Atwood in April, May, June, July, and August. It was the Massey Lectures Series for 2008. A Canadian program that has been ongoing for some time now. Since 1961, I believe. Atwood shifted some things around for the book format but it still reads like a speech. There are some very interesting themes. Speeches work different than print so putting speeches into book form leaves a something a little off. Not bad, but noticeable. I probably should have just listened to the speeches. Then again, I'm not much of a speech listener. Her thoughts on debtors and creditors were intriguing though.… (more)

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