The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

Ray Oldenburg

Book cover

After Elise read this book and liked it, I had high expectations. I had just finished reading “Bowling Alone” and was excited to continue reading on the topic of community (see also “Little Chapel On The River”). Ultimately, though, I felt pretty disappointed in this book. In contrast to Robert Putnam, Oldenburg makes very little effort to incorporate academic research into his book. He may well be a highly skilled sociologist, but his totally casual style ends up making him seem more fly-by-night than Putnam. Thus his argument seems fairly sentimental–which does not mean it’s not worthwhile, but perhaps does mean that it would be better expressed in fiction or memoir form. Certainly Wendy Bounds is essentially making the same argument in “Little Chapel”, and I find that book much more meaningful.

One point that I can’t avoid making is that I also found Oldenburg to be pretty off-puttingly chauvinist. (I was surprised to find that I was more upset by this than Elise was!) The “third place” is traditionally a male-dominated hangout, and RO makes only token attempts to address gender disparities in the past and going forward (which to me is even worse than not addressing them at all). He often comments on how the presence of a spouse may inhibit a person’s interactions with others in the third place, but his characterizations of those inhibitions are clearly, if implicitly, stereotypically female. Perhaps relatedly, RO also makes one (fairly offhanded) remark about homosexuality that I found pretty offensive.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars