Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Three Cups of TeaI had no intention of ever reading this book. I had some inkling of its popularity after the paperback came out, but I wasn’t really interested in it, and then a few years later when all the controversy started up I was like, well, now I really don’t have to read it.

Darn you, book club!

So, I read it. Barely. I started off by listening to it, but the audiobook narrator’s decision to pronunce it “Packy-stan” meant I didn’t get past the first hour. Ugh. The print version, while weird-pronunciation-free (well, except my weird pronunciations, I guess), had instead an overabundance of metaphor and creepy love for Mortenson and I spent many hours procrastinating this book. I didn’t finish it in time for the club meeting proper, which luckily didn’t affect my discussing ability (a plus of non-fiction), but I convinced myself to power through the rest of it right after.

And… it was okay. It was a little weird reading it and knowing vaguely that it was wrong… I didn’t exactly keep myself apprised of the controversy but I understand that the story of Mortenson finding this tiny village to build a school in is maybe not true, and that people were taking issue with his representations of the people he met. So I read through it taking everything with a grain of salt. Of course, I would have done that anyway, as early on in the book Relin (the narrator and writer) claims that Mortenson nearly went to Case Western University Medical School, which, last I checked, didn’t exist — unless it’s my diploma from Case Western Reserve University that’s wrong. Yeah, it’s a common mistake and not one that a lot of readers are going to catch, but dude, I’m not going to catch any mistakes about Pakistan or mountaineering or non-profit organizations either. Perhaps this slip, and a later reference to Mother Teresa’s death occurring in 2000, are fixed in the paperback edition (I was reading out of the original hardcover), but that doesn’t help shake the feeling that everything else is potentially inaccurate.

And the fawning, my goodness. Relin admits right in the opening that his journalistic integrity skips town when it comes to Mortenson, whom he wants to see succeed and prosper. Relin also outs many other journalists as Mortenson groupies toward the end, and talks about how various people want Mortenson to write a book. Wait, this is a book! Amazing!


BUT. I will allow that the provable facts of the book, that Mortenson did actually go to Pakistan and did actually get schools built and did actually help a lot of children get an education, those are interesting and useful. It’s great to read a book about someone doing something good, and it definitely renews my interest in giving money to charity, if not this guy’s particular charity. And as far as the controversy goes, I can understand the urge to exaggerate things a bit, make them sound better than they are, and I can definitely sympathize with a guy getting in way over his head — successfully creating one school in Pakistan does not a Director of the Central Asia Institute make, I don’t think. Mortenson’s story rather reminds me of the one in The Last American Man, in which a guy who just wants to live deliberately in the woods ends up spending most of his time in big cities raising money so that other people can go live in the woods. It’s a tough situation.

Recommendation: This book is a little past its prime, I think. Maybe there’s another book about charity and good works you can read instead?

Rating: 5/10