on April 3, 2012
I quite enjoyed reading this. The author does a good job in writing a lively and accessible book about what many might consider to be a somewhat dry subject.
I particularly liked the historical background. Some of it was truly fascinating. I hadn't realised that Pacioli was such a distinguished mathematician. It was fascinating to read the influence that double entry book keeping has had and how without it some have speculated that there might have been no "capitalism". There were some great details about Marx and Engels.
There are chapters on National Income accounts, scandals and criticism of accountancy and in particular audits. The final chapter on environmental accounting was very informative.
I am a qualified accountant and I think that I would have liked to have read more about the history of the profession. Other people might well like more explanations of accounting terms.
In a way I think that this book might attempt to do too much and the treatment of some subjects is a little shallow.
However despite these reservations I felt that I did learn a few things from this book and it was generally pretty interesting and it all seemed to be accurate.
on May 12, 2012
How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world - and how their invention could make or break the planet
by Jane Gleeson - White
This book is a gem! Dusty old "double entry accounting" is threaded together with stories of Renaissance Venice, its merchants and scholarly discoveries, development of capitalism, national GDP, and accounting for environmental damage.
After a shaky start resurrecting Senator Robert Kennedy, the scene moves on cue to medieval Pisa, Genoa, Florence and Venice. There the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli, mathematician, chess-player, and encylopedist inadvertently immortalized himself as the "father" of double-entry bookkeeping.
Luca Pacioli made significant mathematical discoveries, taught Leonardo da Vinci, and in particular wrote a mathematical encyclopedia in 1494 allocating 27 pages to a bookkeeping treatise that bestowed him glory to this day. This was only a small part of Pacioli's work in "Summa de Arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalità" or "Everything about Arithmetic, Geometry, Proportion, and Proportionality" plus other works including an unpublished treatise on chess which was rediscovered in 2006.
A brilliant intertwined history of merchants and mathematics is presented from Mesopotamian tablets and ancient Greek mathematics through to the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the new style bookkeeping. The dark arts of Egyptian priests and the commercial activities of early merchants triggered Augustine's warning that "The good Christian should beware of mathematics ... a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell". The author successfully combines "the calculations used by merchants ... and the numbers used by philosophers to express the secret harmonies of the universe." This is a neat idea particularly for those new to the history of mathematics or finance.
The focus then turns to bookkeeping, bills of exchange, limited liability, cost accounting, National Accounts, GDP, etc. Pacioli tells us that "If you are in business and do not know all about it, your money will go like flies - That is, you will lose it"; " ... the merchant is like a rooster ... the most alert and ... keeps his night vigils and never rests". Just like modern continuous disclosure Pacioli advises "Frequent accounting makes for long friendship" warning that "if you are not a good bookkeeper ... you will go on groping like a blind man and meet great losses".
Finally, the author goes `over the top' quoting claims not only that the concept of capitalism originated with double entry bookkeeping but the entire modern scientific capitalistic world as well. The book ends by considering environmental concerns excluded from company accounts longing for a sort of Accounting of Everything. Accounting can "make or break the planet ... there may be one last hope for life on earth: accountants". There are limits, if it is that bad, let us all just "drink and be merry ...".
13 May 2012
on May 9, 2012
This is a fine, well researched (if short) history of double-entry bookkeeping. I was aware of some of the history of the practice before I read it, but this filled the history out to the early 1500s nicely. The chapters on the European adoption of the Indian / Arabic numbers out of the Roman and medieval numbering systems, the evolution of the double-entry system of bookkeeping and the early impact of double-entry were all good reading - and well written. It seems well-aimed at the students of the profession and is the most readable history of this subject I have yet read.
There were two disappointments, though. Firstly I would have liked the author to stick to the actual subject, and write a lot more on the development of bookkeeping from Pacioli through to the improvements, refinements and the development of modern accounting over the last century. A mention of Henry Rand Hatfield or Sir David Tweedie for example might have helped. Covering the modern innovation of legally enforceable standards would have helped more. Pointing out the errors that accountants sometimes make should not be the sole focus of this entire time period.
Instead, and secondly, what was there in the middle to end chapters was a discussion of how economists have obtained some of the data that the bookkeepers and accountants produce and added those to other numbers to create figures for politicians and economists to use to try to manage economies. Quite rightly, the author points out that this process is not necessarily likely to be useful, and can be harmful. How exactly this fits in with double-entry bookkeeping I am not sure. The author seems to be trying to justify some of the hype on the front cover, rather than providing a history of the practice and profession. Developing the first section on would have been much, much better.
The last chapter, covering the development of environmental and social accounting was also good reading, and provides a case for this area to develop further. To be honest, though, after wading through the section on the economists I had lost some of the interest that the early chapters had developed.
In summary - if you are looking for a good, well-written and very easy-to-read history of the practice of double-entry bookkeeping, then this is a very good book. It's not long and provides enough detail for most to understand where it come from. If you just want to learn about double-entry, then stop after the Pacioli section and then perhaps read the chapter on environmental accounting. If you also want a discussion piece on how economists can misuse data, then read the whole book.
This really is a book of two halves. Pity they seem so disjointed.
Another interesting point is all the other books that appear when you search for this one.
on January 14, 2013
I enjoyed reading Double Entry, but Gleeson-White's treatment deserved more time in the writing, and a more comprehensive view of certain areas of the bookkeeping transformation that is the central point of the work.
The subject matter is a crucial one in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, and Gleeson-White incorporates not only the title subject (Venetian double-entry bookkeeping), but also the revolutions in mathematics generally, printing, art, and trade.
As a means of providing a more comprehensive view of the Renaissance, the book is laudable, but her views are biased. She is very repetitive in her emphasis of the origins of the Hindu-Islamic number system adopted in the West- space in the book that could have been used for other things.
An example of this is in her treatment of the printing revolution. The author emphasizes the economics of printing, and how this could help Fra Pacioli's text on mathematics be distributed throughout Europe much more rapidly than through expensive, tediously copied manuscripts. She also correctly emphasizes the importance of printing in mathematics and the scientific revolution that followed. But she curiously omits one of the most seminal parts of the printing revolution- the confidence inherent in the printed page. A given edition of Erasmus' In Praise of Folly, once printed, contains exactly the same words in every copy. Contrast the ability to refer to given page and line numbers by readers and scholars across Europe, and know they were reading exactly the same text, with the previous manuscript system, where copies of a given work were never identical in detail, and might actually differ in important respects. In short, the world pre-printing was a world of forgeries, where a given document could inspire little confidence. After Gutenberg, all was changed.
My conclusion: a good, readable book, but it could have been much better. Three stars.
on December 13, 2012
I use it every year when I file my income tax, but I never thought that accounting could be a fascinating story. The first half of this book is definitely first class, from the discovery of the arabo-indian (or Indian?) numerals in the West with Fibonacci (12th century) to the double entry that Venetian merchants began about the same time, although Pacioli did not finalize it until the 15th century.The narration by Jane Gleason-White is like reading a mystery boook, cannot put it down. The 2nd half of the book is more ordinary, with well known refrains I agree with but they are of no use to to-day's merchants, whose double entry has simply been transformed into double income. All n all, a good book.
on June 11, 2013
This is not your ordinary history book. In Double Entry, Gleeson-White transforms what is ordinarily the dull and boring subject of accounting -- think of all those Monty Python jokes about Chartered Accountants -- and turned it into an exciting, lively, and relevant history. Gleeson-White's narrative is lively, highly readable and well-research in an otherwise obscure area. She has woven this lively read into a unique insight of the role the Double Entry accounting system has played in making and ultimately un-making the modern world, financial and otherwise.
The Double Entry system of accounting is a relatively new phenomenon. In the thousand years since accounting has been in existence, the Double Entry system made its appearance only five hundred years ago, in Northern Italy, devised by Luca Pacioli. A brilliant polymath, Pacioli associated with the movers and shakers of the times such as Leonardo DaVinci, and others. In a critical chapter,
Glesson-White's book may be regarded as a short, introductory history of accounting. The Double Entry system emerged at a crucial time in history. It made its appearance following the invention of the printing press, the rise of the Venetian Merchant class, and the introduction of the Arabic-Vedic number system. Gleeson-White asserts that the Double Entry system fundamentally changed the way we regarded the world. Everything now was quantified, reduced to numbers. People began to be regulated by clocks and time; drafting maps became commonplace; vison was corrected by eyeglasses; attitudes to capital, interest and money changed.
But "All That Glitters is Not Gold." There is another facet to Geeson-White's book which is unique and refreshing. The book is also a critique and criticism of the ways accounting has been used by financial organizations. The Double Entry method changed the way we viewed the world by quantifying everything into debits and credits. It has not only defined and improved the modern financial world, it has also given rise the greatest excesses and scandals. The book begins with a speech by Robert F. Kennedy during his 1968 Presidential campaign, where he questions what the GNP, the Gross National Product, has come to mean and measure. In the stirring words of RFK, the GNP does not measure a nation's happiness, well-being, nor it natural resources, although it should. Fast-forwarding forty-five years later, Geeson-White describes those efforts at revising both accounting methods and the way in which the GNP is measured. The book ends with RFK's cautious and visionary words. Geeson-White shares that caution.
on December 11, 2012
This is an amazing story of the birth of the accounting method known as "double entry" that is still used today. As an accounting major in college, I remember hearing the name Luca Pacioli, but none of my accounting courses dwelled on the man or the time in history that he occupied. After working in the accounting profession as a certified public accountant and as a corporate financial officer with a publicly-traded corporation, I have finally learned of the origins of my profession.
The history that the author explores is fascinating. From the development of double entry accounting to aid the merchants of Venice to the spread of knowledge throughout Europe as a result of the printing press, the reader will be lead on a journey on the development of capitalism as we know it today.
In my opinion, the author has been somewhat harsh in judging the auditing profession, because of some major accounting frauds, which have been highly publicized. Having been a part of the profession and having worked on the other side of the table, from my view point, the profession, in my opinion, is highly ethical and I am proud to have been a part of it. Having said that, I do agree that there have been some real blunders on the part of certain individuals, intentional, as well as unintentional, which have cost investors a lot of money.
The only puzzling thing about the story is the author's criticism that the double entry accounting system isn't being used to account for the depletion of the natural resources and harm to the environment in calculating Gross National Product. The story opens with a speech by Robert F. Kennedy wherein he comments that GNP does not account for the destruction of our nation's environment, the health and welfare of our citizens, and a number of other intangibles that make life worthwhile. At the end of the book the author devotes a whole chapter to this subject.
At first, I found the discussion annoying; however, after thinking about it, I found it to be thought provoking. I am still thinking about how double entry accounting could ever account for such events. Generally, speaking, "cost" is the basis for almost all accounting transactions. There are times when judgment is needed to make allocations between accounting periods, such as the computation of depreciation or the calculation of loss reserves, but the underlying concepts are based on "cost". So what would be used to account for the destruction of our environment or the depletion of the country's natural resources? I don't think the cost of the Louisiana Purchase would provide any meaningful information. Perhaps, this is an assignment for the academics in our universities.
Again, I found this whole discussion puzzling and started to wonder if the author was only writing about the history of double entry accounting to establish a platform to discuss a more esoteric topic. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book.
on May 22, 2015
I think this is very possibly the most important approach to the study of human civilization and history I've ever seen, this mundane and seemingly irrelevant topic of double-entry accounting. I had intuited the enormously and metaphysically vital importance of accounting from my own studies in premedicine and then my classes in accounting, but I never dreamed that there would actually be such a real and vital link between the migration of the Hindu numeral system and double-entry accounting, and the ability of human civilization as we know it, to even develop. This is a hugely important book for that reason.
On the other hand, my only complaint about it, is that it gets the actual cause of the Great Depression dead wrong. The Great Depression wasn't caused by a LACK of government intervention in the American economy -- it was caused BY excessive government intervention in the American economy in the first place, in the form of crony capitalism under both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, by which certain bankers and CEOs in the elite clique were first given golden-boy special subsidies that no one else was allowed to have, and then, when these cronies ran their institutions into the ground, they were protected from the collapse they so richly deserved by buddy bailouts because they were, in today's corrupt jargon, "Too big to fail". Sound familiar? Truth be told, only Calvin Coolidge, who came before both Hoover and FDR, had gotten it right, by refusing to help America's executive elite out financially both when they wanted to bigger themselves and then when they inevitably made the characteristic lousy choices that wrecked their companies.
If you're interested in learning the REAL causes of the Great Depression and what FDR's New Deal were really all about, you should check out this book by Regnery Press: http://www.amazon.com/Politically-Incorrect-Guide-Depression-Guides/dp/1596980966
on November 23, 2014
This is not so much a book as it is a three-part effort involving two history lessons connected by a tenuous thread, and an essay advocating environmental causes that even accountants should support.
The first history lesson involves the early development of double-entry bookkeeping in Medieval and Renaissance times, principally by Venetian merchants who learned it from Muslim scholars who may have brought it to the Arab world from India. This part of the book has been well researched, for both the lives and times of the people involved.
The next history lesson skips to the 20th Century, when governments and economists realized there should be a way to measure what then was called “Gross National Product.” I think the author’s concept is that without double-entry bookkeeping, there would not be an accounting profession, and some sort of accounting is needed to make these calculations. There is some good stuff here about the formation of accounting societies and accountant certification – some of it in the 19th Century – but if I want to read a book about the history of what is now called Gross Domestic Product, I can probably find a better one.
The final chapters are an essay on how GDP measurements should be changed to take into account environmental concerns. It is anchored in the famous 1968 speech by Robert Kennedy, pointing out that not all production is good or desirable. When we credit forest products, should we debit the loss of forests and the decrease in oxygen they produce? (Or maybe vice versa.) Good points, but probably not what you expected in this work.
on February 8, 2013
This gracefully written history of accounting illuminates the origins of a profession which has become both enormous and vitally important to the world of business. Amazingly, little has changed in the basic structure since Pacioli first wrote his treative 500 years ago. As a bonus Ms. Gleeson-White draws a lovely picture of life in Venice and the intersection of mathematics and art. She ends the book with a challenge to our profession, to use our skills to investigate Sustainability, probably sound advice.
Stanley Goldstein, CPA
Chairman, New York Hedge Fund Roundtable