I would not say this is a good book. But it is without a doubt an interesting work that brought to life a concept and a yearning for something I had not realized I was missing. The author puts forward the idea of a third place: a place where one can go to socialize lightly without plans or pretensions. It is rightly third in priority after the home and work, but this book claims that Americans in particular are dealt a poor hand both in their lack of physical proximity to such a place as well as the general social attitude that such a place is not necessary for a well-balanced life. Whereas for Europeans such places are a “strong third” in terms of priority, for most Americans it is a “weak third.” It is impossible to read this book without wanting to criticize, but my thinking will always be influenced by this infectious idea of the third place.
The book is divided into several sections. The first deals with the elaboration of the concept of the third place, their lack in America, and their potential import. The second paints a pictures of third places as they used to be in America and as they still are in Europe. The final section deals with the socio-political effects of the third place and pays lip-service to addressing criticism.
First, I would like to get out of the way the major problems in this book. It’s a book written by a straight white man for straight white men. The language used is frequently dismissive of women in general and feminists in particular while the author’s comments on gender equality are barely acceptable. Throughout the book the author focuses on the male’s experience of a third place, and even in the chapter titled “The Sexes and the Third Place” there is almost zero discussion of the female experience. Non-white, non-straight, even non-Western experiences are not even touched upon. This is incredibly disappointing given that out of six examples given, two are from America, two are from England, and all focus on the white straight male experience of a third place. It is impossible to take the author’s argument at face-value when one of the main points is the preservation of social order. This book would have been much more interesting and informative if it had explored in detail any other culture (France and Vienna hardly count).
That being said, the author makes some fantastic points. To be a regular at one of these places sounds like an amazing experience. A place with a sense of community without the obligation. A place to meet people one might not otherwise meet. A place to relax and talk and participate in a conversation. These things are typically missing from many American establishments that could otherwise be third places. But they don’t have to be! So much of the appeal of these third places is the promise of social stimulation without responsibility. The true beauty of these places. We have tried to capture this appeal by joining book clubs, taking yoga classes, and playing in softball leagues. Having hobbies is wonderful, but this kind of social interaction cannot really compare to that offered by a third place.
How sad, then, that such places are so difficult to find. Even more sad for the author is the fact that the best third places (taverns) are never within walking distance! We are a country of drivers, and we are used to being able to zip here and there. This is of course an absolutely awful habit to combine with alcohol, and the balancing act of getting a little tipsy for the sake of easing social interaction and staying sober enough to drive afterward adds a certain stress to the situation that need not apply. Add to this difficulty the social stigma that many have to visiting a tavern before heading home and it is no wonder that so few people partake in these places.
There is no easy solution for this problem. In the foreword the author addresses the issue and what people can do to change it, but unfortunately the most daunting challenge is zoning and thus there is little one can do individually. Perhaps the best way to effect this change is to simply be welcoming and friendly with strangers in those places where you already frequent.
Third places are perhaps not as magical as the author would like his audience to believe, but it’s a nice dream. For those of us who feel starved for social interaction and light conversation, such places provide an outlet for stress and a time away from responsibility. By having such a place outside of home and work it divides life into more discrete compartments that allows for the greater enjoyment of each. This is ultimately the beauty of the third place; when the social life is given a place of physical contrast to the domestic and labor lives it heightens the value of each life in its own moment. And that is why I am looking for my own third place.