Beth Reads: Review of Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
*****UPDATE April 18th, 2011 This post is receiving a fair bit of traffic in light of the recent 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson, as well as public criticism by author Jon Krakauer. Both the author and 60 Minutes have accused Mortenson of fabricating significant portions of his worldwide, bestselling tale of humanitarian non-fiction, Three Cups of Tea. While I recognize that Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute have done incredible amounts of good without question, I was so touched by the whole story that I admit it will be very disheartening if it comes to light that there was significant dishonesty here – if money did not go where it was claimed, for instance. I am interested to see how this unfolds, and hope so much that anything inaccurate can be explained. *****
Since I don’t live under a rock, and in fact work in a position where I am fairly thoroughly (gloriously!) immersed in books, I’d been hearing a lot about Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time since it skyrocketed to bestseller status in 2007. When published in 2006 in hardcover, it used its original title (which Mortenson never liked) of: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism And Build Nations One School at a Time. It sold poorly, only 20,000 titles, and was sorely lacking the attention and acclaim it deserved. In 2007, the paperback came out with the proper subtitle and was soon on the New York Times bestseller list.
Seems obvious to me – why have two negative words like fight and terrorism glaring up from the cover, when you could have two positive, hopeful words like promote and peace. If you ask me, despite the media’s best attempts, we’re all pretty fed up with fear, terror, war, fighting, and whatever-colour-alerts, and good and ready for some peace and hope. And “nations” is such a political word that it’s almost lost meaning otherwise.
Three Cups of Tea is a very easy read. It’s written primarily as a linear narrative, and remains engaging throughout, which is no easy task for a text largely concerned with political, historical and geographical facts. But it managed to hold my interest from start to finish.
I didn’t love the writing. I really, really didn’t love the writing. For one thing, it’s ripe with some of the worst (and unnecessary) similes and metaphors I can remember encountering. One particularly cringe-inducing one went something like “he was so grateful for this food, though the meat was as tough and stringy as the mountain people who served them”. I paraphrase, and probably inaccurately, but the basics are there. There’s a lot of that type of stuff throughout, and it detracted from the narrative, rather than adding to it. The book could really have benefited from a stricter editor.
Another continually frustrating theme throughout was Mortenson’s almost apologetic humility and humbleness, his refusal to take any credit or be in the spotlight. I understand where it comes from – he sounds like a man uncomfortable with attention, who’s doing what feels right to him, doing what he believes in, doing what makes him feel good about his life, doing what gives him a sense of purpose. I understand his not wanting that to be mistaken for heroism, and the associated embarrassment. But real heroes are seldom those who set out to be.
The thing is, regardless of his being made uncomfortable by accolades, he needs to accept them and quit trying to be so damn humble. What he has done is tremendous. What he has done is important, and beautiful, and it needs to get attention because then people will give him more money to do more of it, or people will volunteer, or people will host fundraisers, and at bare minimum people will understand just the smallest bit more about a part of the world that to many North Americans is not only completely unknown, but also even frightening.
Mortenson himself mentions in the book the media’s role in portraying Pakistan, and especially Afghanistan, as largely fundamental Jihadists bent on the destruction of evil America. As a result, the American people have a skewed perception of the people there. He mentions that the schools he builds there help to give a balanced education and teach critical thinking and choice, rather than the Madrassas sprouting up everywhere, often the only schools available for children, which teach only fundamental Islamic schools of thought.
It would be easy to criticize and call that egotistical American thinking, or call it ethnocentric, but the truth is we learn -particularly as children- only what we have access to learn. Just like the Americans here who watch TV and see Muslims cheering at attacks on America and form an opinion based on what we are shown, students of jihadists will learn that American infidels hate them and want to make their loved ones suffer. They will learn what they are shown.
Thankfully, Mortenson has shown both sides a very different side of the other.
I don’t think Mortenson can be applauded enough for the lengths he went (and goes) to to further understanding, promote peace, make education possible, and empower people. I desperately hope that his building schools on the Middle East side gets enough attention to make us learn more on the North American side.
To sum up, I don’t think Three Cups of Tea was all that great a book. From reading it, I can’t even say whether Greg Mortenson is all that great a man, in some ways. But it is absolutely clear that he is a man doing great things, when great things are urgently needed.
After all, the Nobel Prize people can’t all be wrong.