Who We Are Now, by Sam Roberts

This is an unusual book. Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the Twenty-first Century is not the sort of book you read cover-to-cover. It’s an attempt by Sam Roberts, a writer for The New York Times to comprehensively make sense of the 2000 census. (He wrote a precursor book about the 1990 census called Who We Are.)

It’s an overwhelming amount of data, ranging from what “family” is, to how educated we are, to incomes, to migration patterns, to race — really interesting. I found it pretty neat to just read a chapter at a time (say, the education chapter), then think about it some then come back to read a different chapter a few weeks later.

One main thing comes through to me: in spite of all the doomsday sentiment of the last few years, the world is getting better. A LOT better. Compared to a century ago, and even just a decade ago, people in the world generally and in the US specifically, are living longer, better, freer lives than at any point in history. Just as clearly though, there’s a sense of enormous dissatisfaction in the country. One quote from the book:

“They were called ‘the good years,’ the historian Walter Lord recalled of the dawn of the twentieth century, not because everything going on in America at the time was in fact so good or that everyone benefited from its fruits, but because of the unshakable fait that what was wrong could be corrected and what was good would get even better. ‘These years were good,’ Lord wrote, ‘because, whatever the trouble, people were sure they could fix it.'”

I have to ask: what’s happened to that optimism? It sure doesn’t exist now. Perhaps it was a naivete — 1900 was before two brutal hot World Wars and another painful Cold War — and possibly before the real knee in the curve in terms of massive technology adoption (fun to imagine the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford tinkering away). And so now we’re smarter, or more sophisticated, or maybe just more jaded. And instead of the world looking like it can always get better, the prevailing mood seems to me to be that everything is broken.

Interesting book to pick up, lots to think about. Not that fun to read, but interesting for sure.

As for myself, I think things are better than they used to be, and get a little better almost every day.

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