Margaret Atwood: Is Debt Necessary?

Join the Alpha Consumer Book Club for a discussion of the author's latest work.

By + More

This month's selection for the Alpha Consumer Book Club is Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. While Atwood may be most famous for her novels—including The Handmaid's Tale, which looks at totalitarianism—her most recent book explores why we think about debt the way we do. Why do we accept it as part of our lives? Why does it sometimes seem shameful? Why do some of us take on too much of it? Those questions are, of course, especially relevant now, as our entire economy reels from the days of easy credit and subprime mortgages.

Atwood begins with a story from her childhood. When she started earning money as a baby sitter, she opened a bank account. The interest earned on that account baffled her. She writes:

It was certainly interesting to me that I had some extra money—that must be why it was called "interest"—but I knew I hadn't actually earned it: no babies from the bank had been wheeled around in the snow by me. Where then had these mysterious sums come from? Surely from the same imaginary place that spawned the nickels left by the Tooth Fairy in exchange for your shucked off teeth: some realm of pious invention that couldn't be located anywhere exactly, but that we all had to pretend to believe in or the tooth-for-a-nickel gambit would no longer work.

Atwood goes on to explore the meaning of debt. "Without memory, there is no debt. Put another way: without story, there is no debt," she writes.

Then she poses this question: "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." Rats, she points out, have been shown to give themselves painful electric shocks in order to avoid boredom.

After reading the book, these were some of my questions: Is debt a strange idea that we humans made up? Could we function without it? Should we try? And is it possible that some people seek debt out in order to make their lives more exciting?

To join the book club, all you have to do is read a copy of the book (or, for the Cliff Notes-inclined, read about the book) and share your comments, questions, and reactions below.