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The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations Hardcover – April 29, 2014


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Editorial Reviews

Review

Dropout Nation Top Eight Books of 2014 for School Reformers
“[An] exhaustive historical survey of what happens when nations weaken checks and balances in financial affairs.... Soll offers reformers new reasons why they must resist efforts to weaken accountability by traditional districts and even institutional players within their own ranks.... Soll also shows how inattention to the details of accountability...can lead to disaster.”

Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Soll spices his story with big historical personalities.... [He] earns high marks for brevity...as well as for scholarship.”

Los Angeles Review of Books
“[A] brilliant, deceptively brief book.... Soll pulls off the miracle of making his history not a monolith but a mosaic. He examines financial affairs in a dozen eras with a cultural historian’s flair for fidelity, but then assembles these fragments into a whole that leaves the reader satisfied with everything except the status quo. That’s because what emerges from The Reckoning is an enormous missing concept in our debates over market and the state, as well as a mandate to rearrange our thinking in response.”

Financial Times
“Soll’s wry and lucid book traces this fraught relationship between accountability, economic success and political will from Renaissance Florence and the Netherlands to the larger modern republics of France and America, via the empires of Spain and Britain. In his hands, accountability and accountancy becomes a way of investigating the rise and fall of nations.... Without political will, financial accountability remains toothless, but what scope is there for rigorous accountability when the accountancy firms behind banks and corporations thought too big to fail are already their advisers and representatives? Perhaps some rather old lessons from the surprisingly exciting history of accountancy can help us deal with these not so very new problems.”

Barron's
“[Soll] tells the story of that great mental invention [accounting] with flair and insight… The Reckoning records the first 600-plus years of accounting history in entertaining and insightful detail.”

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The Reckoning demonstrates how financial transparency and accounting – essential for capitalism and our global economy – are linked with political transparence and accountability, drawing on such historical examples as the Medicis’ Florentine city-state, the Spanish and British empires, the French Revolution, America’s early days, the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis.”

Literary Review, UK
“Financial accounting is at the heart not only of capitalism but also of any well-functioning government. Jacob Soll’s The Reckoning is a detailed and versatile demonstration of this important historical truth, written by one of the world’s pre-eminent experts.... It is a dazzling book, rigorously researched and demonstrating an extraordinary scholarly range.”

Global Finance
“In Soll’s retelling of history through the lens of accounting, somewhat obscure but endlessly fascinating characters take center stage. With their heads buried in numbers and ledgers, they made crucial contributions to the development of this practice and thus to the betterment of the world.... Soll’s book is chock-full of valuable snippets of information.”

Accounting Today
“In this insightful whirlwind tour of the history of accounting, professor and MacArthur Fellow Jacob Soll demonstrates why the profession and its players are crucial players in any civilization, while also making a strong argument for integrity and transparency in reporting.”

Accounting Today
"Full of fascinating details on the development of accounting over time.”

Prospect, UK
“Historian Jacob Soll develops the case that double entry ranks with gravitation, calculus and relativity, as he uses the history of accounting to provide insight into business and political history.”

Quantitative Finance
“[Soll] writes fluently, but with a professional historian’s attention to detail.... Those who take up the challenge will be rewarded with amazing tales.... The Reckoning is a great read, a notable work of historical scholarship and a fine collection of stories to help guide those who would invest or govern.”

Business History Review
“[A] finely wrought and compelling work that combines impressive breadth and learning with remarkable brevity and crisply resonant prose…. Soll also offers the grim history of how good techniques were forgotten, valuable advice ignored, and personal accountability sacrificed to seductive profit and vainglory. The book makes for sobering, if not harrowing, reading…. The Reckoning is, in the final instance, an eloquent and essential argument for the importance of the humanities, not to mention humanity, to capitalism.”

Chronicle Review
“[A] sweeping, detailed history of how humankind has kept its books.... Soll takes the reader on a tour of everything from accounting in classical antiquity to the murky origins of double-entry bookkeeping in the 13th century to the financial crisis of 2008.... He is a master of the telling anecdote and the entertaining digression, embedding the mechanics of accounting in well-crafted stories complete with colorful personalities, dramatic turns of fate, and healthy servings of historical trivia.”

South China Morning Post
“Really interesting.... [The Reckoning] shows the crucial role played by the development of accountancy in the management and indeed mismanagement of government and businesses.”

Creatively Accounting
“Think of the book as A Brief History of Accounting.... Time and again, we see kingdoms and rulers establishing good practices and procedures leading to years of plenty, following by degradation into unaccountability and, ultimately, a great crash, i.e. their reckoning.... The book does show the importance of educating ourselves in accounting, whether or not that is our field of study. As a Representative Democracy, how can we expect our citizens to make prudent financial votes if they don’t have a basis for understanding the financial ramifications?”

New Zealand Herald
“A rollicking historical narrative.”

Economia
“[F]ascinating.... [A] readable romp through a history of accounting.”

Publishers Weekly
“[An] absorbing history of accounting in the public sphere.... [An] engaging narrative.... The result is a provocative, illuminating take on history that assigns humdrum accountants a central and dramatic role.”

Kirkus
“An intriguing, well-crafted discussion highlighting a major contribution to political and economic well-being, with an obvious moral for today.”

Andrew Blackman
“A history of accounting may not sound like an exciting read, but Soll spares us the details of double-entry bookkeeping and instead tells a series of engaging stories of well-known historical events like the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, and the not so well-known ministers, merchants and clerks who were balancing the books (or not) behind the scenes.... I’d strongly recommend this book for the fresh insight it brings to familiar historical events, and for its author’s ability to find the compelling human stories in the dry world of income statements and balance sheets.”

Jack Rakove, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
“Who would imagine that a history of accounting and double-entry bookkeeping could be so engaging? Yet in this concise, sharply argued book, Jacob Soll deftly examines and explains the remarkable impact that the practice of accounting has had on the rise—and sometimes the fall—of nation states. In his probing analysis, this commitment involves more than the dry techniques of bookkeeping. It also reflects and fosters a complex set of moral and political values whose persistence cannot be taken for granted—a lesson Americans have recently and painfully had to relearn.”

James K. Galbraith, author of The End of Normal
“Many have long known, or at least suspected, that CPAs rule the world. The proof is here. The Reckoning is a tale of power, empire, art and culture—and of their half-hidden puppetmasters from the Roman Empire to the Gilded Age.”

Emma Rothschild, Director of the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University, author of Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment
“The history of accounting and accountability is in Jacob Soll’s remarkable book a dramatic story of politics, morality, printing, temptation and the destiny of economic society.”

Arthur Levitt, former Chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission
“The greatest frauds in the history of the world have been fueled by accounting misdeeds. Jacob Soll's riveting book The Reckoning is a compelling argument for the historical and humane imperatives for clear standards and globalized regulatory oversight. Politicians and business people will benefit from a careful reading of this important book.”

Darrin M. McMahon, author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius
"Who knew accounting was so interesting? Jacob Soll does, and in this masterful history of the men and women who have kept, and sometimes cooked, our books, he will convince you, too. The Reckoning does what the best history should: it piques our interest in accounts of the past so that we may better balance our own."

Robert Bloomfield, Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Management and Accounting, Cornell University
“Packed with riveting stories of how empires can be so easily felled by poor accounting, whether through willful disregard (Louis XIV) or lack of training (Lorenzo de' Medici), The Reckoning is a must read for anyone who hopes to avoid similar fates for the institutions they cherish. But the book is more than a litany of woes. Every student, teacher and practitioner of business or government should know this history of accounting, from its grounding in theology and philosophy to its central role in the rise of modern commerce, statecraft, and indeed, civilization itself.”

Peter D. Kinder, co-author, Ethical Investing and Investing for Good; co-founder, KLD Research & Analytics, Inc].
“Accountability and the trust it breeds made possible business and government as we know them in the West, a history The Reckoning recounts engagingly. Yet every era’s Madoffs, magnates and mega-organizations—and, critically, their minions—subverted that relationship with catastrophic results of which 2008-09 is only the most recent. Jacob Soll has persuaded me that this time, it’s different: our traditions of accountability could be destroyed yielding a reckoning we cannot project.”

About the Author

Jacob Soll is a Professor of History at the University of Southern California. The author of The Information Master and Publishing The Prince, Soll was awarded the MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2011. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (April 29, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465031528
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465031528
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #140,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jacob Soll is Professor of History and Accounting at the University of Southern California.

He is the author of:

"Publishing The Prince: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism" (2005)

"The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's State Information System" (2009)

"The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations" (2014)

He is currently writing "Libraries of Freedom, Libraries of Power: The Enlightenment of Books 1640-1820"


Soll received a Diplome d'Etudes Approfondies from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 1995, a Ph.D. from Magdalene College, Cambridge, UK in 1998, and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2011.

He lives in Los Angeles, California

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By verificationist on May 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Picked this up because Soll was my TA in a college course 15 years ago, and I've kept one eye on his writing. Also, as I've gotten older, I've become more interested in understanding why money does what it does, both in my bank account and the nation's. I don't know how many times I've sat across from my accountant, pleading with him to speak English, but as with doctors and car mechanics, that seems not to be one of the options, even when they try. So I had both high and low hopes for "The Reckoning." Both were exceeded, and with real substance and elegance both. I believe any subject can be gripping if the right person tells the right story in the right way, and this story was -- the only word for it is swashbuckling. "The Reckoning" is a rich, rich history, filled with the most incredible stories and personalities, and, ultimately, deep insight into how the world as we know it came into being. Soll is a great writer, a stylist with tremendous personality, and though I don't pretend to be able to evaluate his intellectual arguments, he convinced me that accounting sits at the heart of what modern states have to master in order to prosper and last. Even -- especially -- when you divorce the term from its first association, isn't account-ing -- accountability -- what we lack so dearly from our luminaries and leaders these days? There's a special pleasure to a book masterfully done, especially when you least expected it, especially in a subject you didn't know you cared about. Thumbs up.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bookkeeper on May 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Reckoning by Soll provides a powerful and interesting history of the interaction between financial acumen, concentrating on accounting skills, and the vitality and viability of nations at the state level and the level of the business enterprise. He does not really demonstrate his thesis in the text, citing the proof texts in the endnotes for those scholars who might take a more critical analysis and desire to test his assertions.

Soll conducts a thoroughly engaging analysis from twelfth century northern Italy to the nineteenth century. Ironically, his writing on the last century is weaker--ironic because there is so much more recent data but the author writes less about this history. For example, he does not even mention the impact of World War I on the profession. Accountants demonstrated great value to the U.S. government during this war period and gained much stature because of this professional work. Soll mentions Enron and Arthur Andersen, but the history of scandals is much richer than that. Abraham Briloff, for example, has filled books with many of those details. I hope Soll writes a sequel and more fully develops this nexus for the last century.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Colin Hamilton on April 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an important, exciting history -- and very different from anything I'd read before. Soll describes how mastery of accounting skills has allowed nations to grow and prosper, but also ultimately to deceive themselves. The Reckoning puts our current financial challenges in an informed historical context, and tells a great story, with from Louis XIV, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens and others all taking roles.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By s s jackson on June 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Confirms what we all suspect--we americans are too complacent about the economy and how it works and why accounting knowledge should be more universal. "The Reckoning" exceeds expectations with well documented information about how nations who understand accounting also understand more about the economy--and themselves ( since we all have to give an accounting of our lives as well). "The Reckoning" documents how nations that succeed financially don't do so automatically. Business acumen and accountability are linked and are not naturally understood. To understand, requires disciplining a nation's populace as to how, business, the economy and accountability work together to produce what we all desire: peace and prosperity. ssjackson.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By g.a. mumey on June 3, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The author is an historian, not an accountant or economist. He describes the development of bookkeeping without getting into the substance of the accounting process. Double-entry bookkeeping, simultaneously tracking stocks and flows, is never defined. The concepts of income and wealth, the quantities being measured by the bookkeepers, are not addressed. The substantial difference between contemporary accounting in the private and public sectors is not treated. There is frequent mention of auditing, but never a word on how auditing is done. There are also quite a number of troublesome errors--"market to market" rather than "mark to market", for example. And the chronology, as another reviewer has noted, is heavily weighted toward long ago, with very brief treatment of recent issues.
On the positive side, the historical description is of interest. The theme that there is a continuing interplay of motives for disclosure and for obfuscation is quite well developed. So, overall, the book was worth reading but had it been more analytical it would have been much better.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By DRBRODY on June 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The reckoning is a very valuable book. For decades I have accepted accounting as a credible and accurate professional service. I know there are dishonest falsifications. What this book did for me is to historically review the evolution of accounting and make me think how possibly inaccurate current signed off accounting could be either prepared honestly or dishonestly.
In financial evaluation, accounting is required as an essential fact. Professor Soll points out how incentives to deceive or misrepresent can make a corporation or nation highly vulnerable. It makes me think, what is the accounting accuracy of government? What is their incentive to factually and accurately represent the state of national finances.
The public makes daily appraisals for investment decision making, and Professor Soll points outs that accounting assumption can make allegedly wise decision making erroneous. So many nations have fallen as their false accounting has been exposed leading to one form of revolution or another.
This excellent and clearly presented book should be read by persons who rely on accounting for financial decision making as a pre-requisite for their professionalism

Dr. Laurence Brody
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