I love history, declared George W Bush in a television interview. "It's amazing to be interested in history and living - making history. It's an interesting coincidence." Here in Britain, we may not all be as confident as Bush that we are making history, but we do apparently share his taste in reading. History is the new gardening. Or maybe the new cookery? If only the Jamie Oliver of history could be found, then history programmes would take the networks by storm. The past has never been more popular, drawing readers and viewers from all walks of life and of all levels of income.
History offers rich possibilities for helping us to understand ourselves. The past can shine a bright beam on the present, challenging commonplace assumptions and inspiring dramatic new directions for thought and action. Its precedents can help give clarity to the confusion and apparent chaos of contemporary events. So one might imagine that our fascination as a nation with history means that we are preoccupied as never before with our origins, how we came to be as we are today, the way events and individuals in history have defined our nation and shaped and given meaning to the age in which we live.
Alas! On closer inspection, it seems that the market for his- tory is more like the high-street market for socks. Buying that interesting-looking history book looks depressingly like another piece of retail therapy: a handy, modestly priced commodity purchased to cheer ourselves up. If history is the new cookery, what we want appears not to be imaginative and innovative cuisine, but yet another recipe for rhubarb crumble or toad-in-the-hole.
The trouble is, the version of "history" that becomes a best-seller or wins the ratings battle is more often than not the one that offers the reader or viewer comfort and consolation for a world we have lost. A short while ago, there was a run on books documenting the history of a single commodity - histories of chocolate, salt, coffee and cod. Each was widely reviewed and snapped up by non-fiction readers. Each celebrated the emergence into consumer prominence of a familiar feature of our everyday lives. Each author had diligently discovered things we never knew about our addiction to salt, coffee and cod.
It seems almost churlish to point out that these snappy little books did not choose to dwell on other, equally inexorable outcomes of European demand - the march forward of colonial control over global economies, or oppression of indigenous peoples. Globally, we stand at an important crossroads, at which our concern for sustainability and the fight against poverty surely ought to mitigate our hunger for more or less exotic consumables from overseas. Perhaps authors feel that such concerns are not compatible with the "entertainment" that history is supposed to offer at present.
Costume history on TV has also proved itself in the ratings battle. Sometimes this consists of presenter-led or voice-over commentary, combined with key re-created episodes, particularly from the two world wars. These take the viewer back to a time when terms such as "patriotism" and "national pride" seemed simple and unproblematic, when we could unapologetically celebrate the confounding of our "enemies". Docudrama re-creations offer an animated window on to a past Britain whose inhabitants are reassuringly organised into distinct social classes, and are largely of a single ethnicity.
Some of these successful costume docudramas have been colourful versions of the lives of "great men" (Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke have all aired to acclaim). There has been a corresponding boom in print biographies, carefully detailing landmark life stories in which gifted individuals and towering intellects influence the world in which they live and work by brilliantly intervening to alter the current of the nation's affairs (I've written a few of these myself). Once again, the thrust of such historical writing is surely misleading as a blueprint for the present, let alone the future.
In the world we inhabit today, great discoveries and critical decisions concerning the nation's future are more likely to be made by interested groups working in collaboration, groups in which women figure ever more prominently. We ought not to hanker nostalgically after the "great man" version of historical progress, waiting for the next great thinker or leader to surface and lead us to victory. The grand plan of the lone decision-maker, however sincerely made, however consistent with a crystal-clear set of beliefs, is no guarantee of a successful or desirable outcome. When Tony Blair insisted that he "knew" that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had to be toppled, while two million British protesters were misguided and misled, was he overlooking the crucial part that intellectual teamwork and the checks and balances of open debate are now expected to play in epochal decisions?
We know today how complex unfolding events are. Contrary to even the most engaging of narrative history's comfortingly linear accounts, there are rarely simple, reassuringly causal connections between act and consequence. History does not follow a single plan, however clearly conceived or conviction-led. George W Bush's enthusiasm for history may have encouraged him to believe that invading Iraq would produce simple, controllable outcomes according to a cunningly devised plan, but simple clarity emerges from military invasion only with hindsight, and after years or even generations of turmoil.
As long as we allow outdated certainties a stranglehold over the popular imagination, because of their temptingly familiar appeal, we deny readers the excitement of engaging with a history that sees the world with fresh eyes - the history that young scholars are brilliantly exploring in our universities. Take, for example, that much-written-about figure, Leonardo da Vinci, subject recently of two major TV documentaries and a clutch of biographies. In a series of letters written around 1484 and preserved in one of his many notebooks, Leonardo reports to someone he calls "Devatdar Kait-Bai" on the findings of a lengthy scientific mission conducted along the Turkish coast, in the aftermath of some kind of natural disaster there (an earthquake, or catastrophic series of storms). A recent popular biographer describes this as "a singular work of fiction" written by Leonardo to "a fictitious governor of Cairo". But Qaitbay was indeed the cultivated and culturally ambitious Mamluk Sultan at this date, and Oriental scholars, such as Gulru Necipoglu at Harvard, have documented the way in which patrons sent prominent Italian artists on extended "exchanges" eastwards.
It seems clear that we need further investigation to determine whether Leonardo really did visit southern Turkey, doing the kind of surveying or engineering work for which his employer Ludovico Sforza of Milan used him at home. Who knows, once we have breached the boundaries of our own historical prejudice, what unfamiliar cultural identities we will discover upon which to ground our future, enriched understanding of ourselves.
At the beginning of the 21st century, historians owe those who are curious about the past a version of events that can help us to build a future properly informed by the lessons of the past. History gives us precious opportunities to plan our future courageously. It should not be treated as a metaphorical pat on the back, allowing us to congratulate ourselves on being precisely who we already are, licensing us to do precisely what we were already bent on doing. When, in 2004, Bob Woodward asked him how history was likely to judge the Iraq war, Bush replied that it was impossible to know the answer to that question - and besides, by then "we'll all be dead". We can surely do better than that.
Lisa Jardine's new book, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: the first assassination of a head of state with a handgun, is published this month by HarperCollins