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A Pound of Flesh: Extraordinary Literary Debts

Today marks the release of David Graeber’s new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In this red-bound tome, Graeber explains the concept of debt and credit and the ramifications of both, except he does so in a way that is accessible for those who are in the mood to question the current global economic set up. He writes, “Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender.” Which got us thinking about the the anxieties involved in owing debts and what we could learn from the stories of hardship and redemption below. In these tales, the debtors are to be pitied, but at times their actions can be shocking. What are some books you would add to the debt debate, dear readers? Let us know in the comments section.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

In the play, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who offers a tidy sum to Antonio, his rival. The security for the transaction is, unbelievably, a part of himself. When Antonio can’t pay the loan, a vengeful Shylock demands the pound of flesh as his fee. (Antonio did spit on and mock him, after all.) But the judge has the final say:

“Tarry a little, there is something else,
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are, a pound of flesh;
Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting of it, if thou doth shed
One drop of christian blood; thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice”