WHAT DOES THE PHRASE "small town" mean to an American? Depending on age and circumstance, usually one of about three things. And sometimes, even though this presents logical difficulties, it means all three simultaneously.

First off, it tends to mean a happy mirage floating somewhere around the year 1900 -- a simple, innocent community to feel nostalgia for. When urban pressures are intense, that nostalgia can be overwhelming. "Back out of all this now too much for us," Robert Frost begins one of his best poems, there is "a town that is no more a town." A vanished, harmonious New England settlement of the horse and buggy age. If you could only find it, Frost teasingly adds, you could drink the healing waters of life and be saved.

But since the place doesn't exist any more, except in the plays of Thornton Wilder and in Frost's Directive," we obviously can't find it. We just feel nostalgia.

Second, "small town" means a boring present reality. The small town is where small-minded people lead their stunted lives. Worse yet, they actively seek to stunt those of their neighbors. Gossip isn't something glamorous in a column, but a deadly form of social control. It would control you, if you lived there. There's also nothing for a young man or woman to do . . . except escape if he can.

Third, " small town" means somewhere so remote, so off the map, that it's funny. "East Jesus" used to be the irreverent name that 19th-century Americans gave to such a place. I think Henry James was alluding delicately to that joke when he has the heroine of Roderick Hudson spring from a Massachusetts town called West Nazareth.

There's even a fourth thing that "small town" means to people like me, who grew up in the suburbs. It means roots. People move in and out of the suburbs as their jobs dictate; hardly anyone has a local grandfather. But in a small town the old man like as not lives next door.

Richard Lingeman knows all this and more, too. It's staggering what he knows about small towns. Sometimes, reading this book, I got the impression that he must have read every small-town novel ever written by an American, and half of the local histories. If there's a story behind the novel or the county history, he knows that. From de Tocqueville through Herve Varenne (the French anthropologist who spent the early 1970s living in a small town in Illinois) he knows what foreign observers have thought. (Varenne, for one, thought that small towns are the place where human love works.) Lingeman even grew up in a small town himself and lived his subject.

Why, then, is this book so nearly a failure? (No book with so much fascinating information can be a complete failure.) There are several reasons, beginning with the fact that Lingeman lacks the gift of drama. With a handful of exceptions like Tin Cup, Colorado, and Dodge City, Kansas, none of the many towns he describes ever becomes real.

Another reason is the absence of a point of view. At times the historian Page Smith's point of view emerges (with due credit), or Varenne's, or Henry Seidel Canby's. The book itself lacks one.

But the main reason, I think, is a curious one. Lingeman knows too much. In the right hands, that would be no problem. A great writer can't know too much. But a merely competent one can trip all over his own too-abundant material, and this is what Lingeman does. The book does have a structure -- it begins with the visionary small towns planted by the pilgrim fathers 350 years ago, and it marches confidently up to the present -- but meanwhile Lingeman keeps dumping in great masses of semi-relevant material.

For example: Edgar Lee Masters wrote brilliantly of small towns, and Lingeman does well to bring in Spoon River. But since he knows all about Masters' life, he brings that in, too. That, in turn, leads him to an extended account of Chicago literary life between 1910 and 1920 (Masters participated in it) -- and by now we are two removes from the ostensible subject of the book.

Or, again it is possible to know that first canals and then railroads spawned hundreds of 19th-century towns without getting diverted, even for a paragraph, into an account of the rivalry between the two. Or to link small towns and distrust of drinking without feeling that you have to give a pocket history of the temperance movement.

Another problem that his wealth of data poses for Lingeman is that there was too much of it for him imaginatively to possess it all. Or even, perhaps, for him to check it all. Hence he can write blithely that pioneer farmers grew a crop of wheat, from planting to harvest, in 24 days, while corn took 40 days. (Farmers are in the book because farmers surround small towns.) If farmers could grow a crop of wheat every three-and-a-half weeks, Russia would not be importing grain, and the world would not have a food shortage.

Similarly, he supposes that Victorians invented the euphemisms "necessary" and "privy" for the outhouse, quite unaware that these terms come from Elizabethan England and even earlier times. John Russell was writing about privies in 1460. Lingeman asserts that an Idnianan named Meredith Nicholson coined the phrase "sweethness and light" around 1918, just as if Matthew Arnold hadn't used it constantly in Culture and Anarchy -- and just as if Arnold himself hadn't taken it from Swift's Battle of the Books , published in 1704. (Despite its allusion to bees, who provide us with honey for sweetness and beeswax candles for light, it was never that wonderful a phrase, anyway.)

Last of all -- and this is odd for a man who has spent the last 20 years as an editor in New York -- Lingeman has almost no ear for language. Or, rather, he does, but it's an unerring ear for the cliche. If an early town has commerce, "it boasted a general store." Consumers are always avid, Indians colorful. The whores in Dodge City, Kansas, are "soiled doves." Honest. Sarah Orne Jewett writes of the Maine coast "she knew so well."

Small Town America fairly bursts with interesting material. Like an account of the first federal interstate highway. (It was built earlier than you think; construction began in 1811.) Like the story of little Hastings and littler Juniata fighting over which would get to be the seat of Adams County Nebraska. All good stuff.

But if you really want to understand American small towns, you would do better to read something like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which captures the western-open form, or James Gould Cozzen's novel By Love Possessed, which captures the eastern-inward variety. This book documents and describes, but it never captures anything.