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Aaron Bady on Debt: The First 5,000 Years (by David Graeber):


It’s a hard book to review, though, because it’s doing several irreducibly different things at once (which I’ll try to lay out in as logical a fashion as I can manage). Despite the singularity of its title, Debt is more like James Frazer’s Golden Bough than one of those books on How Cod Explains History or whatever; it’s a dazzlingly syncretic, coherent, and multi-faceted effort to re-narrate virtually the entirety of human history, by starting from a concept and opening outward to include everything else. But it’s actually not even that big in an absolute sense; if you strip away the one hundred pages of endnotes (which actually tend to put it on the too-short side) you’re left with just shy of 400 pages, a book that almost feels short and constrained as a result, since Graeber weaves together texts as apparently distinct as ancient Vedic scriptures and Sumerian temples with Nixon’s decision to float the dollar and urban legends about vaults of gold buried under the World Trade. If anything, the limitation of this big book is actually that it’s not big enough, that it gestures towards — without fully including – so very much that is within the ken of its ambition. But the short version of this review, simply, is this: I can’t really picture a better book than this one with those ambitions. You should read this book, if you like reading books of this kind. It’s a really fucking good book (more...)

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