Not Oprah’s Book Club: Three Cups of Tea

three cups.jpgGreg Mortenson is an unlikely advocate of girls’ education. A hyper-masculine mountain climber, he spent much of his young twenties figuring out how to get to K2, one of the tallest mountains in the world, and climb it. He failed. But as with so many failures, there was a wild success underneath.
He fell in love with Pakistan and its people, especially the native peoples of Korphe, a tiny village high in the mountains that defeated him. After building a school there (another climb that included many, many obstacles), he found that it was not outdoor sports but education that he was most called to. He wanted to keep building schools, keep interacting with the people of Pakistan, keep—he would later conceptualize—fight terror through the safety of books and open minds.
The 300 page book (exhaustively detailed at times) is a powerful retelling of Mortenson’s journey. As a sucker for these kinds of biographies in altruism, I was riveted the whole time. Mortenson’s resilience and determination inspired me to take a totally new perspective on my own definition of “set back.” He is sometimes frighteningly unafraid.
But what I found missing from this account were the moral complexities. In Korphe, for example, Mortenson helps the village people—historically separated from “civilization”—by an abyss, build a bridge. What seems simple, however, had to have caused all sorts of wild changes in the community. Relin only dwells on the positive, briefly mentioning that there are often unintended side effects of well-intentioned acts. As someone interested in all the gray of international development and civic involvement, I want to read about those side effects, not see them glossed over.
In short, the biography was too sunny for me, to glowing and angelic. Nevertheless, I was incredibly moved by Mortenson’s example and you, no doubt, will be too (if you haven’t already been…it’s a bestseller after all).
Next time: The Oxytocin Factor by Kirsten Uvnas Moberg

Join the Conversation

  • FrumiousB

    Greg Mortenson is an unlikely advocate of girls’ education. A hyper-masculine mountain climber,
    This is a total gender stereotype. There is no reason to assume that a “hyper-masculine” man would not advocate for girls’ education.

  • Sumayyah

    I loved this book! I read it in one afternoon. Being Muslim, I enjoyed seeing a more positive, softer side of Islam. Being female, I also enjoyed seeing young girls get a chance to receive an education. More people should read this book!

  • Kellyann

    I’ve been meaning to check this book out.I’d like to see what it’s like. Thanks for the review.

  • Judith

    I was so glad to see you reviewing this book. I’m sorry that you found it “too sunny” – I do see what you mean about impact, and as a scholar in human rights and development, I do think those things are important, but of course a book has a limited amount of space (if you want your average Joe to keep reading) in which to convey a message. Personally, I read this book a few years ago and it was life-changing. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but it’s what drove me to pursue a life-long career in international human rights, rather than just working in Western Europe. We’re going to be trying to raise money to have him come speak at my law school (unfortunately, the $1000 speaking fee may make that impossible) because I really think some budding lawyers could benefit from what he has to say.

  • zaneopal

    My sister’s going to be a freshman in college this fall, and the college assigned this book as a “common book” to discuss in Freshman English and honors seminars. She seems to like it so far

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    We listened to the book on CD during a long car trip and the writing style (particularly the half-baked and semi-precious metaphores … seriously, “whirling like a dervish” in a book that’s trying to describe the delicate nature of the Sunni/Shiite divides in Islam?) did impede the impact of the book. The writer was so in awe of Dr. Greg’s work and the nobility of it all that it actually raised my bullshit flags at times. Not that I don’t think his task was noble, but just the sunshine-lollipops and rainbows isn’t aimed at people who think critically beyond simply accepting what the narrator is telling you.
    Sorry if that seems disjointed. It was an important story and the work is very noble, it just suffered from a bad writer.

  • alceinwdld

    I also loved reading 3 Cups of Tea!
    I truly appreciated the discussion of social and political issues, and loved how it ended up being a feminist book.

  • dee

    The book is required reading for the incoming class of freshmen at Michigan Technological University, and Greg Mortenson will be on campus in September to give a talk. I am reading it now and find it inspiring.

  • howlingmonkey

    A hyper-masculine mountain climber,
    So climbing is “hyper-masculine,” is it? You are supporting harmful traditional gender roles and rendering women climbers invisible with that comment. As a woman who climbs hard, I don’t appreciate it.

  • triskelion

    I read this book as well and also found the writing style to veer very close to a long-ass “People” article at times. But I do agree that it is a great and inspiring story and I was surprised at how much I loved this book. Actually, I can see this in Oprah’s book club (if she includes non-fiction?) because of its wide appeal and popularity…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I think the use of “hyper-masculine” isn’t really attacking or debasing women climbers…she’s using it to create a juxtaposition of what some people may normally think about mountain climbers and what Mortensen is actually like by then showing his interest in girls’ education. If writers are expected to follow every phrase mentioning men or women with a qualifier that “of course, many people don’t follow gender stereotypes, blah blah” I for one, would find a hobby other than reading to occupy my time.

  • Chloe

    This book has been recommended to me a few times and I have hesitated to pick it up for the reasons you and other posters have mentioned – glowing tales of good samaritan westerners generally give me pause. the recommendations here are enough to convince me to stop judging the proverbial book by the cover, though. i’ll take it with a grain of salt.
    that being said, i have the same bone to pick with the hypermasculine comment. i’m an avid climber, and i can assure you that big tough masculinity has nothing to do with it, being a woman who can barely make 110 lbs.

  • zapatos

    I heart this book. I agree that the writing is a little … tortured at times, but overall the book is tremendously inspiring. I would encourage anyone planning to order the book online to first go to Mortenson’s website and then click through to Amazon. That way he gets more money from the sale. I think it’s a travesty that Oprah hasn’t embraced him and given him the kind of exposure that would really help his cause. Everyone I know who’s read the book has immediately pulled out their checkbook.

  • acookson

    I read Three Cups of Tea a few summers ago and really liked it. Mortenson is doing incredible work and his recognition of the importance of educating girls is refreshing. I only wish our government had such insight.