Book Review: ‘Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern World’ by Jane Gleeson-White

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern WorldDouble Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern World by Jane Gleeson-White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(DISCLAIMER: I’m more well-read and educated in history than accounting. I think this book would be overall more enjoyable for accountants. There aren’t enough books about accounting out there.)

If proving that ‘double-entry bookkeeping has shaped the modern world’ sounds extremely ambitious, that’s because it is. Later in the text it’s even revealed that other works supporting this thesis are generally considered the minority opinion, so not only does Gleeson-White have to stretch a very limited thesis across multiple eras, she’s also got to stand up for a viewpoint that isn’t widely held. I can’t imagine the most experienced of people being able to deliver a completely convincing argument to validate this thesis, and I don’t hold it against Gleeson-White because it makes for such a fascinating premise.

That said, the thesis ended up falling apart for me. Economic factors are obviously a huge drive for the way society developed, seeing as how art and other projects need funding. I think she could have convincingly argued for the primacy of accounting in driving the Renaissance and later movements, but double-entry bookkeeping specifically? Gleeson-White ends up moving away from it at points because it is just so narrow.

There’s huge gaps in the history covered—the rise of Dutch banking is practically an addendum to Luca Pacioli’s Italian Renaissance work–the colonial/imperial periods aren’t really mentioned, and then the focus on the time periods that are discussed in depth feels very surface-level (I found this more so for the Renaissance era, Gleeson-White is a lot stronger when discussing the modern era—although she’s extremely patchy when covering the Industrial Revolution, I noticed some tangents in that section).

Overall, the history of accounting and its shaping of the modern world is a really interesting topic. Trying to narrow it all down to double-entry bookkeeping doesn’t work, even though the fundamental role of double-entry bookkeeping in creating the profession of accounting is interesting and could totally be the focus of a book.

With either stronger historiography or more of a focus on the modern era alone—the rise of corporations was a section that could have used a lot of expansion (followed by more on the global economy) because wow I love reading about that stuff and there is not enough on it, this book would’ve better lived up to my admittedly high expectations.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern World’ by Jane Gleeson-White

  1. I loved the book. I thought is was incredibly inspiring. To me she spotted something so basic to what we do in accounting, that we don’t even realise its import. If everyone understood just that much basic stuff, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in. thanks for reviewing this book and offering your opinion. You made me want to learn more. (I am a bookkeeper ….. and have always been fascinated by how this simple tool has such power to guide decisions.) Thanks again.

    • Agreed! (My mother’s an accountant.)

      I would definitely recommend reading it for the accounting perspective.

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