The View From Here: Lisa Jardine

Ham's View

It was only a matter of time before someone turned curmudgeonly about the reading public's apparently insatiable desire to know more about the past. Ever since Simon Schama hit the big time with The Embarrassment of Riches, publishers have been vying with one another to produce the next big book with all you ever wanted to know about a particular historical period, a particular segment of our forebears' activities and interests. Biographies have never been more popular. Books on the the history of obscure bits of science and mathematics have hit the best-seller lists - accounts of how the problem of longitude was solved, or of the mathematicians' quest for a solution to Fermat's last theorem. Most surprising of all, perhaps, have been the sensational sales figures for weighty tomes that take on the entire span of human history from the beginning of time, and from corner to corner of the known world - Norman Davies's Europe: A History, for example, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Millennium.

Sure enough, writing in The Times this week, Jonathan Clark berates popular historians for the "bland agreeableness" of the messages they are currently disseminating to general readers. The trend in mass-marketed history books is, he tells us, "the historical equivalent of Hello! magazine". These are feel-good-about-ourselves books, books that endorse our contemporary preoccupation with money-making and consumerism. They are so much pap, today's opium for the masses. Real historians, meanwhile, according to Clark "think of the past as a body of evidence of which they ask hard questions and demand important answers".

It would be easy to suggest that there was an element of sour grapes about this kind of pronouncement. When his best-selling Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution was savagely attacked by historians within academic journals, Simon Schama demanded to know why the disparaging remarks made by professors should carry more weight than the enthusiastic response of well-informed general readers. Norman Davies might ask the same question following an extremely ungenerous review by Theodore Raab of Europe: A History in the New York Times Book Review, which had absolutely no effect on sales (still booming) - particularly in view of the fact that the editors of the New York Times Book Review themselves subsequently selected Europe: A History as one of their "books of the year".

What we seem to be seeing is growing numbers of readers making their own attempts, by assembling a diverse body of imaginatively presented historical work, to make sense of a past that is being reshaped at an alarming rate. If you stand in a quality bookshop you'll see history readers selecting their new purchases three or four at a time. I don't believe for one moment that those who are prepared to buy books with 500 to 1,000 pages imagine that they are going to get cut-and-dried answers to resolve all current uncertainties. I do think that thoughtful members of the general public know that the history they were taught - and history is generally rather well taught at school - no longer encompasses or can account for the world they inhabit. We are unsettled, unsure of ourselves; we turn to history for understanding and reassurance.

Which means that the knee-jerk hostility to "popularising" that we get from the likes of Clark and Raab is fundamentally retrograde in its comfortable conviction that only traditional academic historians can set the agenda of "hard questions" that need answering. They have failed to consider that those hard questions may also be the wrong questions, irrelevant to our current predicament. They have not noticed that answers that seemed important 10 years ago now seem partial and imprecise.

Instead of castigating authors such as John Brewer (whose information- packed new book The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century was the subject of Clark's outburst), academic historians should look around them, and then take another look at their own "recondite research". Perhaps that, too, is worth writing up in a form in which non- initiates may be tempted to try reading it. Only a couple of years ago, the same doom-mongers were telling us that the book itself was dead, that reading was a thing of the past. Instead we find that, almost talismanically, the written word seems to offer more in the way of solace than the TV or computer screen. In my experience general readers are prepared to have a go at understanding almost anything - as long as they are not told patronisingly, in advance, that it's too hard for them.

The current mood is for diversity, for histories and world views that embrace the widest possible range of contexts and types of experience. If 2 May 1997 was the beginning of a new era for Britain, let's give those fortunate enough to be in pursuit of enlightenment about our past, in this country, at the end of the 20th century, a ranging book-learning worthy of those newly enlarged horizons and ambitions.

New Labour, New History

The writer is professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 1 Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 1 Teacher required for a love...

Tradewind Recruitment: Permanent Class Teachers Required for 2015/2016 - Suffolk

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers seeking perma...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 5 Teacher Required For 2015/16 - Chelmsford

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: A popular, 'Good' school loc...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers Required in Norwich and Great Yarmouth

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am working on behalf of a ...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food