Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly. What Middletown Read: Print Culture in a Small American City

Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly. What Middletown Read: Print Culture in a Small American City. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. 320p., ill. ISBN 9781625341419. US $28.95.

In What Middletown Read, Frank Felsenstein and James Connolly offer a compelling contribution to the growing scholarship on the history of reading. Using circulation records of the Muncie public library from 1891–1902 contained in the What Middletown Read (WMR) database and historical, demographic, and bibliographic data about the borrowers and what they borrowed, Felsenstein and Connolly investigate “the place of books and reading in the lives of ordinary Americans a little more than a century ago” (13).

The first section of the book, ‘A City and Its Library,’ provides the historical context for the circulation records found in the WMR database. It positions 1890s Muncie as a boomtown with rising cultural aspirations, examines the development of the public library (including a helpful contrast with the shorter-lived Workingmen’s Library), and explores the role of printed materials in cultivating a cosmopolitan sensibility among its residents. Part II, ‘Reading Experiences,’ looks at reading in turn-of-the-century Muncie through chapters focused on library borrowing patterns, the experiences of children and women readers, and readers’ diaries.

Perhaps the most useful sections for demonstrating the potential of the database are chapters four (‘Borrowing Patterns’) and six (‘Reading and Reform’). In chapter four, Felsenstein and Connolly convincingly use borrowing patterns from the WMR database to challenge notions of turn-of-the-century libraries as primarily purveyors of moral improvement and social uplift. Concluding that “the library operated primarily as a supplier of cultural material from which its patrons could absorb the impressions of the world created by popular fiction, not as a conveyor of the knowledge contained in scholarly works and the cultural capital conveyed through highbrow literature” (134, my emphasis), they reveal that the Muncie public library affirmed popular tastes rather than complicated them. Chapter six persuasively uses reading records, historical data, textual details, and demographic information about individual borrowers to demonstrate how members of reform-minded women’s literary clubs “treated fictional texts as [minimally transgressive] tools for understanding the world” (169) in a society still wary about changing roles for women.

As Felsenstein and Connolly note, the most significant limitation of the database is its inability to provide evidence about how individual readers interpreted and used what they borrowed (and presumably read). For the most part, the authors use supplemental information effectively to address this lacuna (as described above). However, despite presenting a productive balance of gender and class perspectives, the four diaries written by young people included in chapter seven seem less directly relevant to the project at hand. While the diaries may, as the authors state, allow us “to comprehend at a far more intimate level the place of books and reading in the lives of Muncie’s young people” (212), the tangential relationship of these diaries to the database makes this section feel slightly out of place. Nonetheless, the authors have made an important contribution to our understanding of reading in this community at the turn of the century, and they offer suggestive opportunities for further research with databases of this type.

Jennifer Nolan
North Carolina State University