Who are we? Where are we going?

This could get pretty deep. We could pick up a copy of the New York Review of Books and immerse ourselves in the nuances of hermeneutics or long discourses on "Why America Is All Wrong."

But let's not.

We've got some problems. We've got some really big warts. But hundreds of people die every year trying to reach this land of wrongness, problems, and warts. We must be doing something right, even though we seldom hear about it.

Maybe we should think about that.

To learn more and get some clues about who we are, how we see ourselves, and why this country remains a great place to save and invest as well as live, let me suggest two books.

The first is David Brooks' "On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense" (Simon & Schuster, HB, 285 pages, $25.00). Like his earlier book, "BoBos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," Brooks delivers a hysterically funny and easy read. I found myself reading whole sections aloud to my wife.

Try this one, from "The Grill-Buying Guy (pg. 53)."

"In front of him is a scattering of massive steel-coated reactors with names like Broilmaster P3, Thermidor, and the Weber Genesis, because in America it seems perfectly normal to name a backyard barbeque grill after a book of the Bible.

"The items in this cooking arsenal flaunt enough metal to survive a direct nuclear assault. Patio Man goes from machine to machine comparing their various features--- the cast-iron/porcelain-coated cooking surfaces, the 328,000 Btu heat generating capacities, the 2,000-degree tolerance linings, multiple warming racks, lava-rock containment dishes, or built-in electrical meat thermometers. Certain profound questions flow through his mind. Is a 542-cubic-inch grilling surface enough, considering he might someday get the urge to roast a bison?"

What Brooks finds--- after describing contemporary American life and searching for insights from the past--- is that Americans are a sublime combination of the crass and material with the transcendental because we live in hope, always looking to the future and what comes next.

"The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" (Random House, HB, 317 pgs plus footnotes, $24.95) by Gregg Easterbrook will take a little more time to read. But it relentlessly documents all the things we seem to forget while we focus on the Next Big Problem. As Dallas Federal Reserve Bank economist Michael Cox has done, Mr. Easterbrook enumerates the hundreds of ways in which life has improved for the average person over the last century.

We live longer. Fewer of us die in childbirth. Entire diseases have virtually disappeared. We live in larger homes with appliances that didn't exist a century ago. More of us own our homes. We have more telephones. More cars. And going out to dinner is a given, not a special treat. While most developed nations discourage immigration, we welcome it and benefit from it. We are more educated. Fewer people are poor and most of those who are poor know it is a temporary condition. We give more and help more.

"...(F)or more than a decade in the United States charitable donations have been rising faster than the economy as a whole. In 2002, Americans gave away $241 billion--- two-thirds as much as the entire defense budget," Easterbrook tells us.

Aging is slower and better than it used to be: As an 84-year-old friend said to me recently, referring to his hip replacements, hearing aid, and cataract surgery,   "I'm not really 84 if you average in the age of all my new parts."

"Researching this book, and thinking about the alternatives," Easterbrook writes, "has caused me to begin whispering a regular prayer of thanks: Thank you that I and five hundred million others are well-housed, well-supplied, overfed, free, and not content; because we might be starving, wretched, locked under tyranny, and equally not content."


What connects these two books is a single phrase: "and not content."

  One of our greatest qualities may be just that--- not being content.