Defining and showcasing the American identity is a fruitful endeavor for publishers, who take up the challenge this season with a quartet of fine new gift books. Spotlighting spectacular and little-known events from our country's history and examining the roots of our national character, these selections shed new light on a seemingly inexhaustible subject.

There is virtually no page unillustrated in The Story Of America (DK, $35, 672 pages, ISBN 0789489031), a splendidly designed and colloquially written history by Allen Weinstein and David Rubel. Besides the predictable head shots of the great and the curious, there are also copious images of tools, costumes, coins, buildings, maps, political cartoons, posters, magazine covers, handbills and kindred historical artifacts. Subtitled "Freedom and Crisis from Settlement to Superpower," the book begins with the conquests of Cortes and concludes with the terrorist attacks of September 11 and their immediate aftermath. To make the evolution of the nation more understandable, the authors pinpoint 26 specific events among them the Salem witch trials, John Brown's raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, the Watergate investigations and present them with cinematic immediacy. These accounts are complemented by succinct profiles, written by other historians, of such pivotal political, social and cultural figures as Supreme Court justice John Marshall, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Native American warrior and statesman Quanah Parker and playwright and activist Lillian Hellman. Clearly organized and well indexed, The Story of America is a visual delight that will give American history buffs hours of browsing pleasure.

Freedom: A History of US by Joy Hakim (Oxford, $40, 416 pages, ISBN 0195157117) is a companion piece to the forthcoming 16-part PBS series, "Freedom: A History of US," which will begin airing Jan. 12. A former teacher, reporter and editorial writer, Hakim first gained fame as a historian with her 10-volume History of US, written as texts for elementary school students. This new book aspires to an older audience, although it remains exceedingly readable and filled with the enthusiasm Hakim brought to her original work. She writes much of her narrative in present tense to heighten the notion that long-ago events are occurring before our eyes. "In the South, where blacks often outnumber whites, many whites don't want black people to have guns," Hakim observes in a passage on the use of black soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Her short sentences and simple words belie the toughness of her theme that individual freedom, the philosophy on which this nation's government is based, is an easier doctrine to espouse than ensure. Each section of her book charts the progress of and deviations from the ideal. Illustrated with highlighted quotations and 400 photos. In their new book In Search Of America (Hyperion, $50, 307 pages, ISBN 0786867086) ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and producer Todd Brewster focus on specific activities occurring within each of six towns Aiken, South Carolina; Boulder, Colorado; Washington, D. C.; Plano, Texas; Gary, Indiana; and Salt Lake City, Utah. From watching these activities and noting how the towns' citizens respond to them, the authors deduce certain truths about the American character. For example, the push to put religion in or keep it out of the Aiken school system reveals the raging but still-unresolved struggle between science and faith, moral relativism and absolutes. Visits to the other cities enable the authors to speculate on how a broad spectrum of the population views the role of government, capitalism and globalization, entertainment and popular culture, race and immigration. Rich in photographs, the book is further enhanced by breezily written profiles of people from other parts of the country. It is doubtful that In Search Of America teaches us anything that a reasonably intelligent adult wouldn't already know. But it does bring our own beliefs about the nature of America into sharper focus. In September, ABC-TV aired a six-part companion series to this book.

A collection of photos meant to reveal the American character (and how little it has changed), America Yesterday and Today by Blythe Hamer has just enough text to sketch in highlights of the nation's history of the last hundred years or so. As visualized here, that character manifests itself in sections titled "Free Time," "American Classics," "Sports ∧ Entertainment," "The Great Outdoors," "The City," "Everyday Living" and "Celebrations." With few exceptions, the images range from benign to uplifting. Even photos of social protest such as those contrasting opposition to the Vietnam War and to the World Trade Organization show no heads being cracked or blood flowing. The fallen World Trade Center is detectable only by the faraway smoke from its unseen ruins. Many of the shots come with built-in laughs: the bathing beauties of the 1920s standing cheek-to-cheek, as it were, with their bikini-clad great-granddaughters; the born-again tough guy wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Satan Sucks"; the skateboarders using garbage bags for sails. More pleasant than provocative, America Yesterday and Today is a scrapbook for a nation, with scenes from our daily lives that illuminate who we were, and are.

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