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Atwood Explores The 'Shadow Side Of Wealth'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Margaret Atwood excels at combining intellectual rigor and popular accessibility. Her new book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is a nonfiction meditation on the perilous economic situation in which many of the world's citizens — and governments — have currently found themselves.

This slim, discursive volume rose from a prestigious Canadian lecture series in which a writer is invited to grapple with a single topic. Atwood chose debt with her usual prescience, produced five essays and adapted them into a thoughtful book.

Payback reflects Atwood's deep fascination with moral codes and her staggering grasp of world religion and Western literature. She moves readers effortlessly from ancient Greek tragedy to 17th-century children's literature to the Lord's Prayer ("Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors") with striking forays into such fields as computer history and animal anthropology. (Apparently, one scientific study shows that capuchin monkeys recognize a rudimentary form of debt.)

While many of Payback's reviewers have been dazzled by Atwood's exploration of debt in terms of morality and justice, she's been criticized by nearly all of them for skipping over microeconomics and key concepts of legal debt. In an essay in Salon, writer Louis Bayard pointed out that Atwood alludes to "the Old Testament concept of Jubilee, which called on Hebrews to cancel all debts every 50 years, but for some reason, she never mentions the international Jubilee campaign, a liberal coalition dedicated to erasing all developing-world debt. Nor does she mention debt-for-nature swaps, which have channeled millions of dollars of canceled debt into conservation projects."

In the end — and maybe even in the beginning, Atwood suggests — it all comes back to nature and the awesome debt that human beings owe the planet. Her call for global forgiveness and a concerted environmental movement may strike some readers as dippy. (It doesn't help that she's draped much of it in an unconvincing revision of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.) But it is nonetheless fearless, and unfortunately for us all, still radical.

This reading of Payback took place in November 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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