Friday, July 10, 2009

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (CBC Massey Lectures). House of Anansi Press, 2009.

The Massey Lecture Series is a national event in Canada. Each year since 1961 a scholar presents a week-long series of lectures on a pertinent topic, traveling from coast to coast. The lectures are then collected and published in book form by Anansi Press. Past lecturers have included Northrup Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King, and Noam Chomsky. The 2008 lecture, presented by novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, was about debt, admittedly not a topic particular to LIS nor the academy but one that is on the minds of many in these days of recession.

Atwood writes that the inspiration for her lecture series on debt were the ads for debt services that she saw while riding on public transport. Why, she asked, are there so many of these ads? With this question in mind she explores debt (and its co-dependent relationship with credit), looking at its source and how it is embedded throughout our culture. Although Payback is about debt, it is not a book about the practical side of managing money or high finance. What lies at the core of the lecture is the concept of equilibrium. Atwood looks at debt through a surprising array of lenses – human sacrifice and sin, taxation and revolution, technology and the environment, systems of debt and credit as a template hardwired in the human psyche, rules of moral conduct and our sense of justice, fairness, and revenge. Throughout the lecture series Atwood draws on examples from world religions and the canon of western literature – from Dante to Disney - to illustrate how humans keep the ledger for what we owe each other. Its difficult to draw specific lessons for information professionals and the academy from Atwood’s reflection on debt other than to say that it seems to permeate every aspect of life and must be accounted for. A fascinating read!

1 comment:

Ellen Detlefsen said...

Indeed--this does seem very timely and interesting! I have only ever read Atwood's fiction, so I'll try to to get my little local library here to get this title, or I'll schlep over to the Indigo store in Kingston ON next week (where it will undoubtedly be out on a table in prominent display!) ;-) Thanks for the recommendation/review! pax, Ellen