I disliked Three Cups of Tea; my mother loved it. Read our counterpoints.
By Rebecca Reid of Rebecca Reads
I heartily disliked listening to the 800+ minute audiobook of Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin.
To begin with, I disliked the horrible writing, which was full of extraneous details and parenthetical thoughts, as well as cheesy comparisons (“Mortenson sat on a boulder and drank from his water bottle until it was empty. But he couldn’t drink in enough of this setting.”). Or maybe my boredom stemmed from the never-ending tangents away from Greg’s Pakistan story (such as his girlfriend dumping him). Also, I disliked Three Cups of Tea because it read like a report, not a memoir. Despite Greg’s name on the cover, the story was in the third person. Recollections are told by a researcher (“he says, five years later” and “she says, her eyes filling with tears”). This journalistic approach to what could have been impressive made this story drier with each and every insignificant detail.
Ultimately, I disliked this book because of Greg Mortenson, who I failed to like for the beginning 600 minutes of narration. Yes, he was compassionate. But because he lacked common sense, to me he appeared to be a clueless loser with good luck.
In the early 1990s, middle-aged Greg worked part-time to save for climbing adventures. When Greg fails to summit K-2 and those in a remote village in Pakistan save his life, Greg promises to build them a school. In the USA, he lives in his car to save money. Not knowing how to use a computer or to fundraise the requisite $12,000, he typewrites letters to celebrities for months. Then he meets a wealthy scientist who not only funds Greg’s promised school but wills $1,000,000 to Greg in the form of a new Pakistan school-building humanitarian organization. But Greg is no business man: when funds get low, he chases possible donors across the USA, and his own employees quit because he disappears for weeks at a time without contact.
Back in Pakistan, Greg, who despite having funds still lacks common sense, does foolish things. For example, he buys building supplies before remembering he’d first need a bridge to get them to the village. In 1996, he was abducted by Taliban operatives because he traveled alone, despite advice not to. After 9/11, he goes to the Afghan border “just to see what will happen.” Despite his scatter-brained ways, he somehow succeeds in building schools, bridges, and women’s centers.
The story post-9/11 was slightly more interesting, and I learned much about Muslim-American relations from a new perspective. Greg’s attempts to rekindle peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan were applaudable, and I stopped disliking him as much. However, there is subtle comparison of Greg to Mother Teresa, which I still felt was inappropriate.
Greg has compassion on the uneducated of Pakistan, and he does promote peace towards the Muslim world post-9/11. The children of Pakistan certainly do need an education. But personally, I found Greg’s story uninspiring overall because, despite his obviously compassionate heart, Greg mostly seemed to lack common sense.
By Ellen Sorenson
Ellen Sorenson has a Ph.D. in English and she teaches middle school English. She also happens to be Rebecca’s mother.
Sometimes we read a book to enjoy the perfection of the language; sometimes we are enthralled by the intricacies of the plot; and sometimes we are inspired by a story that must be told. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin was, for me, such a story. I was reminded of a character in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country — a woman who, when thanked for her service responds, “what are we born for?” Surely Greg Mortenson knows what he was born for. Lost while climbing Pakistan’s treacherous K2, he wandered half-frozen into the remote village of Korphe, where the impoverished people nursed him back to health. Whereas other climbers had visited the village and never returned, Mortenson was determined to keep his promise to build a school for the people who had saved his life.
It was a promise he was supremely ill-equipped to keep. He was without adequate organizational skills, financial resources, or personal connections. Yet he somehow managed to raise the necessary $12,000 in America, purchase materials in Islamabad, and transport them through corruption, bureaucracy, and bands of roving militants nearly as challenging as the poorly developed mountain roads he had to navigate.
His one school in Korphe has been followed by dozens of others, in addition to pipelines and wells to bring fresh water to villages, women’s workshops and community centers, and health education. Education for girls is the single most important factor in reducing poverty, abuse, and child mortality in developing nations. For the boys of Pakistan, it provides an alternative to the Taliban-sponsored madrasahs, where hatred and violence are served along with three meals a day.
According to Haji Ali, Village Chief of Korphe, in Pakistan, “[we] drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family.” Reading Three Cups of Tea, I was reminded that I am a member of the human family. And though I have not shared a cup of tea with the people of a distant land, perhaps I can share something. Mortenson’s bridge to Korphe spanned more that the gorge beneath it; it spanned warring cultures, and his work suggests that perhaps the war on terror is not won by bullets, but rather by love, education, and a shared cup. I was left to wonder, if Greg Mortenson, with his inept ways, can make a difference in the world, what can I do?
One group of American school children raised 62,345 pennies for Mortenson’s efforts. That’s enough money to buy two or three nice ipods, or 5% of the cost of a school for the children of Pakistan.
It is a book worth reading.
ETA (February 27, 2009): Hey folks, I have closed comments on this string.
As with most books, Three Cups of Tea has proven to be a divisive book: many people like it and many people hate it. Many people recommend it as required reading because of it’s good message, while others can’t get past the first 100 pages for sheer boredom or disgust at the writing. This post, set up as a Counterpoint, attempted to illustrate the two points, and I think the comments have only turned my attempt to be balanced into an argument, which was never my purpose. I’m very sorry we could not just all be nice, especially while talking about a book about peace-making.
Please note that since I wrote this review in October, I have read dozens more books, some I liked a lot and some I haven’t liked at all. I’d love for you to share your thoughts on those books!