Three Cups of Tea may just be one of the most well-known works of non-fiction around today. It’s a tricky one to avoid hearing about. If you haven’t read it, someone you know has, or you’ve seen one of the thousands of interviews given by co-author Greg Mortenson.
And even if you’d managed to avoid all of that, the potential scandal unearthed by CBS’s 60 Minutes last month, alleging not just that portions of the book are fabricated, but that Mortenson mismanages the charity that allows him to build all these schools, has put the book and Mortenson directly into the public spotlight and headlines.
It was this hoopla, actually, that prompted me to pick up Three Cups of Tea. After hearing about it for so long, I wanted to decide for myself what to believe.
Three Cups of Tea follows the story of Mortenson, a nurse and mountain climber, as he fails to climb K2 and then discovers a new path – building schools for the rural villages of Pakistan. It doesn’t prove to be an easy task, as Mortenson has no experience with building or fundraising, and only a superficial knowledge of the complex and volatile region. He learns quickly though. He’s guided by a series of tribal leaders and businessmen who believe in his cause, and he begins to gain momentum for his quest. He is eventually named the director of a nonprofit foundation, The Central Asia Institute, which is where things really take off for him.
The first thing to strike me about the book is its strange point of view. It is not written directly by Mortenson (David Oliver Relin co-wrote it), but it is about him, and it frequently mentions his feelings, his perceptions, and thoughts, as if it were a first-person narrative. It has the feel of an overly long-and-drawn-out human interest story in a newspaper. The writing isn’t strong. And this made it immediately seem plausible that some of it was made up: I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone the thoughts that went through my head 10 years ago, no matter how climactic the events. But problems with the story go deeper than just weak prose.
Central Asia is an area of mystery to many people. We are hungry to learn anything we can about the region. And this is where Three Cups of Tea primarily fails us. Rather than providing insights into the people and places and events he encounters, Mortenson provides only a superficial account of any of the major issues one might hope to learn about: the plight of women, the Taliban, terrorism, anti-American sentiment, etc.
This would be perfectly fine in your average memoir – it is, after all, the story of this man, not a treatise on Pakistan, but in early editions, the subtitle of the book is “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time.” Certainly, building schools will, in the long run, help build a nation, and may even fight terrorism. But there is no connection built between the two in this book.
Perhaps that is why in the paperback, the blurb is changed to “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One school at a Time.” It may seem like a small change, but it is one that made a profound difference to me as a reader.
Also, take the example of the role of women in the book. One of Mortenson’s main goals in building schools is supposed to be to promote the education of girls. It’s right on the homepage of the Central Asia Institute – “to empower communities of Central Asia through literacy and education, especially for girls, promotes peace through education, and conveys the importance of these activities globally.” However, I was halfway through the book before Mortenson even began to specifically talk about educating girls, with very little mention of the importance of it.
When it comes to discussing the recent scandal, I tend to err towards giving authors a little leniency. It’s a memoir, not a textbook. So he exaggerated a little, so what? Who among us hasn’t overstated that danger of a situation, or the size of the fish, when telling our friends a story? Books require drama to sell. What I find more difficult to forgive is the allegations that Mortenson has been making poor choices in the money management of the Central Asia Institute. I highly recommend taking the 15 minutes to watch the 60 Minutes piece on Mortenson, if you haven’t already. What he’s doing seems unethical, even if it isn’t illegal.
In all, Three Cups of Tea is an interesting book; there is certainly enough going on to keep you reading. But there’s enough that’s questionable in it to prevent me from giving it out as Christmas presents any time soon.
About the Author