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A book that turns 20 this year tops my list

December 19, 2009

It’s the time of year when nearly every publication is compiling a list of its favorite books from 2009. The New York Times always has good recommendations as does NPR and this year The Daily Beast aggregated several lists and picked the most popular tomes. It’s worth checking out.

But I’ve found that in all the books I’ve read this year, from Half the Sky to The Road there’s one that stood out and made me want to shout that’s it! Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place.

The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, my pick for the year

Yes, this book is from 1989, not 2009, but as it celebrates its twentieth anniversary I was amazed at how well it stands the test of time. Oldenburg explains something that’s missing from our lives called the Third Place.

The first place is home and the second place is work and we spend our entire lives in a rat race going from one to the other. Today, we might even add in a quasi-third place that is the mega-mall (or substitute any other retail mecca here). When we have free time we use it to spend money and then when the money runs low we enter the rat race again to make more money to pay for more stuff. This observation is made by Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff.

The real third space that we’re missing is the community space. The space where we informally gather with friends to socialize and unwind and communicate. Oldenburg calls these places anchors of society and believes they’re not a luxury but a vital component to a healthy culture.

He suggests that Europe has these places—the piazza, the sidewalk café, the pub, the town squares. Starbucks has tried to capitalize on this idea of the third space by creating warm cozy environments away from home. Baristas never ask patrons to leave and indeed the couches encourage people to stay. Starbucks does this intentionally and even adopts Oldenburg’s language saying, “We strive to create a welcoming environment…and continue to focus on making the Third Place experience for every Starbucks customer.”

But one tenet of the third place, at least for Oldenburg, is that it’s free or inexpensive and highly excessive. I’d hardly say $5 for a cup of coffee is free or inexpensive. And though Starbucks makes strides toward this notion, we need more.

I’m not the first to recognize that there’s a gap in society that needs to be filled by a genuine third space. Robert Putnam writes about this in Bowling Alone and Colin Beavan certainly has this realization during his No Impact Man Project. Michael Pollan says this is one of the reasons he frequents farmer’s markets—to meet people and to establish a sense of community. Even when he doesn’t need anything at all he goes to the market to run into friends, to spend time outdoors, to simply connect.

This is my hope for the coming year, finding more time to connect. I discovered this briefly while I was in the middle of the ocean on my garbage patch reporting trip for the NY Times. Without any TV or really any entertainment at all I was connected to five other people in the most intimate way. To sit out on the deck at dusk and enjoy the simple presence of someone else’s company was so blissful. It’s something that, three months after returning, I still miss.

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