Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
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Apr 18, 11

Read in March, 2008

Some books I really enjoy reviewing. They’re either important, enjoyable, well-written, or some combination thereof. There are a few others I read (or start to read) that simply aren’t worth the effort of discussing at all. In a third group are books that bother me by triggering one of my pet peeves: Some may be well-written fiction, with great characters, but the author’s clear purpose is to push some kind of agenda. Others exploit children (especially disabled children) as a means of manipulating cheap emotions. Then there are books that needn’t be well-written at all but have been given some mysterious boost by the publishing world and soar to far greater acclaim than is justified by their own merits.

Three Cups of Tea is in the latter bunch. It was given to me as a gift last Christmas, and because of the subject I was eager to get into it, despite the fact that Greg Mortenson had relied on a “real” writer to interview him and pull his story together (generally not a good sign, the quality of prose being inversely proportional to the number of co-authors). I was starting to bog down with the mediocre writing that several other reviewers have noticed, but then it was announced that the author was actually coming to speak in an auditorium at my place of employment. Re-motivated, I tried again to make headway in the book, and got as far as the point where our doughty hero returns to Pakistan with funds to start building a school. On the big night, I headed over to the auditorium about half an hour early, only to discover the place had been filled to capacity for a long time. The street outside was still jammed with cars, circling in search of parking spots that weren’t there, and the security guard was warning people that they’d never get in. Turns out, the local NPR affiliate had announced the event, and somehow this particular writer generated enthusiasm like I’ve never seen before. (And I’ve been to hear quite a few prominent literary figures speak or read.)

Why the big deal? It couldn’t be the quality of the writing, which is just passable at best. (I like a reviewer’s comment that “if you actually can finish this blather, it will be as if you climbed a mountain. A long, boring mountain.”) The clue to the excitement, I guess, is on the jacket copy and in the subtitle. This may well not have been Greg Mortenson’s original thought at all. As far as I know, he was motivated only by a laudable desire to do good. (That by the way is another problem with the book: His motivations are never really explored. He’s treated as some kind of icon.) Apparently he did indeed do something remarkable, and that should be commended. But the packaging of his book suggests to me that the opinion shapers are really saying that if we only built more schools in impoverished countries as he did, and generally gave more in foreign aid, lunatics from that part of the world wouldn’t hijack airplanes and fly them into our buildings. Again, I’m inclined to believe Mortenson wasn’t thinking this way at the time, but I see he now has a blog post entitled “It Takes a School, Not Missiles.” So apparently he’s going along with the theme that is working so well.

When I was unable to get into the auditorium that night, my copy of the book went back onto my table. Several months have passed, and I’ve felt no desire to pick it up again. In fact, I just got rid of it. But unfortunately, the important thing about it is that it isn’t really a book at all, now. It became a sort of political phenomenon around a book. And that’s something altogether different. With all the copies out there, I wonder how many people actually read more of it than I did.

UPDATED to add this bit of news because, of all the book reviews I've posted, only this one has inspired people to flame me with comments. As the comments are borderline ad hominem attacks, as opposed to any kind of argument about the book's merits, as a book, I always promptly delete them. Everyone is entitled to beliefs, political and otherwise. When I write here, it's primarily about literary merit. I found little of that, and now, apparently, there's another reason to question the value of this thing.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Sarah I agree with the "america saves the world" angle. I didn't even finish this book. I got to the part where he's returned to Pakistan to build the school and is encounters local politics. Still the overall idea is that terrorism can be combated by western efforts to educate the "norther tribes" (many condescending representations abound), with no mention of the history of the colonial and neocolonial militarization of the area and ongoing conflicts over resources (including opiates and oil) and strategic spaces. The roll of the small arms trade (discussed brilliantly in a documentary called "Devil's Bargain") is suspiciously absent. Westerns many be content to view the "East" or "South" as simply requiring more schools. Not that education isn't valuable in itself, but this vantage point is problematic to say the least. Thank you for your comments.


message 2: by Arelya (new)

Arelya J. Stephen, I liked the perspective you put on your "Three Cups of Tea" review in that the book has evolved into an aspiring political event. How ironic that it now has become a political controversy. I have not read it yet, but do look forward to doing so. I especially think your following quote is apropos: "Then there are books that needn’t be well-written at all but have been given some mysterious boost by the publishing world and soar to far greater acclaim than is justified by their own merits." Your quote is most definitely one worth keeping. I also look forward to reading "Revolution Is Not A Dinner Party". I am glad you're letting your daughter read it, because we are on a historical timeline not all those many years removed for Mao's China. Having studied China and its politics, I still continue to find this whole era fascinating and frightening. Just think what would have happened had Mao not scourged the country of its educators, but as we all know when studying any type of revolution, the educated ones (either formally educated or informally) are the first to go as a form of cleansing the previous society. However, that 'closed' society that Mao created did make the Chinese dependent on the Chinese, and that in itself gave the Chinese as we know it today a certain self-reliance. But again, just think how much stronger the country would have been if this so-called Cultural Revolution had not happened. Once upon a time, I presented a paper in which I stated that China would become more capitalistic in its economic outlook, and you see every day the Communist Party has to loosen the economic grips to stay in power. There's a political science book entitled "An Economic Theory of Democracy" by Anthony Downey, which still holds water. How soon (on what could be perceived as a small scale of historic time) we have so conveniently forgotten about this event in China or that China was formally a closed society. Again, I enjoyed the two reviews and will put these two books on my list. Thank you and take care.


Stephen Gallup Thanks for your response. Regarding China, or at least Chinese people, my observation is that nobody in the world is more inclined toward doing what it takes to make money. To some extent their focus must be a reaction and an effort to make up for lost decades, but my guess is that it's deeper.

And yes, I have a thing about books that enjoy more success than they deserve, because so many excellent titles remain forever ignored.


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