Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

by Margaret Atwood

This is a brilliant book, one that could be read multiple times and still thrill the mind, one that I'm actually considering purchasing for my home library. (Which would be a pretty big deal: I've only bought two or three books since I started working at a library; although I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 of the library's books at my home, my personal library of owned books is down to about 30 from a high of several hundred a decade ago.)

Margaret Atwood is a genius, and she's Canadian. Does it get any better? I've only read two other of her books — The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman — but I'm quite confident in calling her a genius after reading this book-length essay considering debt and credit as concepts in the spiritual, psychic, historical, symbolic, literary, fiscal, cosmological, and biological realms. You can tell she's crazy well-read, and it's astonishing how much territory she covers and how many threads she weaves in an actually rather short book. I was a tad worried, however, when I reached the last chapter, in which she conducts a thought experiment that transports Ebenezer Scrooge into modern times; I thought it would be strained and dorky, but it turned out OK.

Debt is on the minds of many in the spring of 2009, but Atwood is here to remind us it isn't just dollars and cents, however captivating and/or tragic and/or sustaining those digits are. Even in a time of financial crisis — or perhaps even more so — it's well worth taking the time to consider the deeper meaning of debt-as-archetype and how deeply embedded it is in the way we live now.

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