Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Here’s the rare “book off the TBR” win! Of course, Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a relevantly recent TBR addition that has not undergone the shameful, years-long limbo that other titles have, but any progress is progress.

If you look back at the non-fiction I read in 2022 (especially the non-fiction I read and enjoyed in 2022), you can see something of a common denominator:

A small collage of book covers that I rated 5/5 stars during the year.

Caliban and the WitchJakartametoden and Handels: Maktelitens Skola all go a very long way towards explaining how capitalism as we know it came to be and how its current norms and structure are maintained. Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 is reportage often aimed at critiquing those norms and structure and, if you want to stretch the conceit, ancient Rome is where we like to start the story of Europe, and it is Europe from which springs everything else the other selections touch on. (Temples of the Sky is the odd one out, a niche hobby read.)

Whether this trend is due to the natural progression of my interests, the years I’ve now spent absorbed in financial reports, the turbulent times we live in, or some other constellation of factors, who can say. Regardless, it continued straight away into 2022 with Debt.

I’m not lucid enough a thinker to provide a pat nutshell summary of my own, so I’ll lift the one on the book’s page:

[Debt] explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer, in 3500 BC until the present.

And then the one from the back of the book itself:

Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.

So says anthropologist David Graeber in a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Renaissance Italy to Imperial China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong.

We are still fighting these battles today.

This is the best kind of nonfiction: written by a knowledgeable academic for a lay audience without insulting their intelligence or devolving into jargon and obscure terminology, with a heaping helping of works cited at the end.

In many ways, this is the less crackpot-y, more grounded and more academic answer to Sacred Economics, which I read a few years ago and which helped keep me oriented in Debt. A lot of what Eisenstein describes as “gifts” seems to overlap with what Graeber describes as the favors that, with the advent of currency, turn into debt. Neither of them mention each other, however. Both books came out in 2011*, so I’m not sure whether it’s Graeber or Eisenstein who should be referring to the other. (Graeber might have felt that Eisenstein wasn’t nearly academically rigorous enough to cite and too out-there to be worth engaging with otherwise, and I can’t say I would have blamed him.) They definitely draw from at least a few of the same sources, such as Marcel Mauss.

I expect I will end up re-reading it later in the year, as it’s so dense with information and argumentation that there’s no way you can absorb it all at once. (Maybe you can. I can’t.) For now, time to give my brain a bit of a break.

*I think. It’s hard to tell, precisely, with Sacred Economics beyond “before 2012.”


As established in my StoryGraph Wrap-Up post, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club is responsible for just about 25% or so of my reading every year. Here’s me getting a head start on the first meeting of 2023, finishing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando right at the end of 2022.

As this selection might imply, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club applies a very generous definition of “science fiction.” This is only a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps things fresh and varied. I have no complaints about Orlando being included and I think I even voted for it in our poll.

I just wish I could like Virginia Woolf.

I don’t understand what my problem is. I love Mrs Dalloway, enough that it’s one of the few books I’ve re-read in my life, but anything else I’ve ever attempted just leaves me cold. “Why aren’t you Mrs Dalloway?” I lament as I read, until I either finish the book (Orlando) or give up on it entirely (To the LighthouseA Room of One’s Own). Is it a disconnect of time? Culture? Class?  I’m reminded of my colleague’s complaint about Thomas Savage: “You love yourself too much, book.”

I won’t dispute Woolf’s place in the English canon, her role in feminist literature, or the esteemed reputation she enjoys today. My point isn’t that she’s Objectively Bad, Actually or Extremely Overrated (I save that hot take for Jane Austen!). I think she is, on balance, very well deserving of her posthumous success and reputation. I just lack the necessary receptors in my reading brain to actually enjoy her writing.

2022 Reading Wrap-Up

Last year I deleted my GoodReads account and signed up for StoryGraph. Between the awful GoodReads experience on mobile and sharing unnecessary  amounts of reading data with Amazon, I decided enough was enough.

I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have an alternative, though, because I like having an easy way to track my books. No laborious spreadsheets for me, thanks! And that alternative was StoryGraph, which proved not only to be an adequate GoodReads replacement but an actual improvement. In addition to a much smoother and functional interface on mobile (though there is a web version as well!), it tracks a greater variety of data and uses it to help you better understand your reader rather than to feed the Bezos beast. It also lets you play with that data in better detail. What better way to show that off than by sharing my 2022 Reading Wrap-Up from StoryGraph!

A screenshot from the StoryGraph website with reading statistics. Here it says that I read 53 books in 2022. My first book of the year was SPQR. My last book was Orlando.

A line graph for a full year. The line starts slightly below halfway in January, dips slightly until May, and then increases to slightly above halfway in December.

It’s unclear how they are categorizing “light” and “dark” books on the site, precisely. StoryGraph gives you the option of selecting “moods” for books as you add them, which I assume this graph is referring to. (“This would be good for someone in the mood for something…”) My guess is that moods like “tense” or “sad” count as dark, and that ones like “hopeful” or “adventurous” count as light, but that’s just hypothesizing. Apparently I was in a real bummer reading mood for the entire spring!

Another line graph comparing pages read and books read over 2022. At the bottom of the image are celebrating emojis and the text "Congratulations on meeting your reading goal!" Below that is green progress bar with the text 110%.

A bar graph showing my most-read genres. Science fiction: 12 books. Classics: 10 books. Literary: 9 books. Queer: 8 books. Contemporary: 5 books.

No surprise that science fiction tops the list. Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club keeping me on my toes!

The longest and shortest books I read this year. The longest was The Big Balloon (A Love Story) at 648 pages. The shortest was Uppläsningen at 47 pages. The average length of the books I read was 324 pages.

A bar graph showing the authors I read the most during the year. Muriel Barbery: 2. Stefan Zweig: 2. Marcel Pagnol: 2. My average rating for books 3.75/5 stars.


A small collage of book covers that I rated 5/5 stars during the year.

Ones that I discussed here were:

A bar graph showing my ratings breakdown. 0 stars: 1 book. 2 stars: 6 books. 3 stars: 10 books. 4 stars: 23 books. 5 stars: 13 books. My average rating 4.5 stars in March. I read the most pages (2,590) in December.

Sometimes numbers surprise you. Despite the 3.75 star average, I wasn’t expecting to see quite so many 4 star ratings in my stats (I promise I know how math works). My philosophy is that if your average rating over a whole year reaches or exceeds 4 out of 5 stars, you are either being overly generous with your opinions or insufficiently adventurous with your choices. Or you are possibly DNF-ing every single mediocre book you pick up, which is a choice I respect.

Another great thing about StoryGraph: it lets you give 0 star reviews, which is exactly what I gave Into the Drowning Deep.

The most shelved book (by other users) that I read was My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

StoryGraph also provides the “least shelved” book you read—the book you read that the fewest number of users have added to their own lists, whether they’ve read it or only intend to—and the “highest rated” book you read—the book you read that has the highest rating on the site. My “least shelved” book was a self-published novel that I panned (seems pointlessly cruel to share that) and my “highest rated” is niche and of no interest here, so I’m omitting those two.

I read 44 new to me authors this year, including Ryka Aoki, Lori Gottlieb, and Ingegerd Enström. Nine of the books I read were part of a series. I re-read 2 books.

Speaking of re-reads, I’ll take the opportunity to point out that adding re-reads of books in different languages (which was both of those re-reads) is much easier to do on StoryGraph than on GoodReads.

I finished all of the books I added this year. Compared to 2021, I read 5% fewer books but 21% more pages.

Pie charts of the moods of books I read during the year and their pace. I favored reflective, informative, and emotional books (42% total). They tended to be medium-paced (54%).

A list of the common components of my highest-rated books. Moods: mysterious, dark, challenging. Pace: slow. Book type: nonfiction. Genres: biography, feminism, reference. Story style: character-driven. Characters: flawed, diverse, well-developed.

So there you have it! Maybe that enticed you to give StoryGraph a shot? Nothing about this post is paid or sponsored, I just think the service is that cool and I want it to succeed wildly.

The Big Balloon (A Love Story)

I decided to get an early start on some classic New Year’s resolutions like decluttering and ending long-term toxic relationships by having an emergency gallbladder removal two days after Christmas!

Medical drawing of a gallbladder
This one does not spark joy!

It also left me with three and a half days of nothing to do but chip away at my ebook collection; I didn’t take my purse and its ever-present paperback with me to the ER, as I fully expected to return home the same day. Well, well, well. Fortunately my phone is a miniature library of obscure and half-forgotten ebooks and I could keep myself distracted in the long waits between ultrasounds and discussions with surgeons. Most of that time was spent with the back half of Rick Berlin’s The Big Balloon (A Love Story), which up to that point I’d been reading on my morning commute.

I’m not hip to the Boston art scene, I didn’t know who Rick Berlin was before I bought the book, I’d never heard of any of his musical projects. But he put out an ad for the book on one of my go-to podcasts and since the premise sounded unique, or at least interesting, I decided to give it a try. I feel that’s only worth mentioning because someone who’s either a fan of Berlin, or familiar with his artistic milieu, will probably have a different response to it than I did.

Out of every possible Pandemic Project or Pandemic Novel, The Big Balloon is maybe the only one I can imagine that will be at all tolerable to revisit in more normal times (if we ever have more normal times). Even though the book is the direct result of COVID-19, it’s never about COVID-19. The conceit is simply this: The Big Balloon is a collection photos of items around Berlin’s home and reflections, stories and reminisces related to each item. Each little essay is entirely self-contained, with no attempt to impose chronological or thematic order on the collection (aside from organizing it into chapters based on rooms). The result is like a literary version of a Cubist portrait, where different years of Berlin’s life and different aspects of himself are presented simultaneously—or as close to simultaneously as you can get in something you read. Something about using the limitations of lockdowns to open up a vast interior world, etc. etc.

The Big Balloon worked well for commute and hospital reading because each essay was never especially long, so I could dip in and out according to subway arrivals or morphine-addled focus. And that was precisely the intended effect:

There is no linear structure to this book. No over-arching narrative. Each entry is self-contained. One piece can relate to another, but it isn’t necessary to make that connection. The reader can pick it up, crack it open anywhere, read a section and put it down. The ‘chapters’ are just the rooms in my house.

It could be said that I chose this odd-ball format for bathroom reading. For those with short attention spans. On the other hand, much as I love the twists and turns of a full blown story, the Haiku simplicity of disparate entries exposes Berlin as if opening the paper window flaps of a Twelve Days Of Christmas holiday card in no particular order.

The highly personal nature of the material also, in a way, made up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. I wasn’t exactly starved for social contact generally, between the two other patients sharing my room and chatting with the nurses doing their rounds, but that’s not the same as time with your nearest and dearest in the darkest, coldest days of the year. The next best thing was Berlin plunging right to the depths of his own psyche to share with me, and the rest of his readership:

The Big Balloon is super personal. Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’d hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.

A creative not-so-little undertaking that makes me want to ask the same of my friends, or save up for a dry spell on the ol’ bloggo. “Choose ten things around your house and write an essay about each one of them.” Maybe make that an additional step in the KonMari method.

Happy New Year!