Book Review – Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Education is the greatest weapon anyone can have. It is the weapon that Greg Mortenson has been trying to use in Pakistan and Afghanistan for almost twenty years. Three Cups of Tea chronicles the journey of Mortenson, a mountain climbing enthusiast, as his vow to return with the money and materials to build a school for a small mountain village in Pakistan turned into a mission to educate children in hard to reach areas of Central Asia.

The story being told in Three Cups of Tea is inspiring above all else. Reading about what one man has managed to accomplish and push others into helping accomplish is amazing and can make the reader feel like the laziest and most ungrateful person to ever have existed (which hopefully inspires readers to do something charitable; I wonder if any of the proceeds from the book go to the Central Asia Institute because if they don’t, they should). The events that took place in the wake of September 11th are understandably the most relatable and probably speak to the reader more than other sections ever could.

Mortenson and Relin do a great job of explaining some of the difficulties of working in the region: the different ethnic peoples living side by side but speaking different languages, descended from different traditions, even different religions. It is a hard history to learn and understand (after two semesters of history classes dedicated to the struggles of the area dating back to Alexander the Great, it’s still fuzzy in places to me). There could have been a little more information about the Soviet Union’s involvement with Afghanistan during the 1970’s, but maybe that’s included in Stones into Schools, his 2005 follow-up book.

As wonderful and inspiring as the story being told is, the writing drove me crazy. There was a chronological order to the narrative on the whole, but a lot of jumping around in chapters and even, occasionally, in paragraphs. Other literary elements that usually work in novels were forced into this book. Things like foreshadowing that would have been ominous or ethereal in a novel were awkward and gave portions of the book feel fake. It seemed like it was trying too hard to be inspiring and runs the risk of turning the reader off.

The research conducted shows. Many people were interviewed about their thoughts regarding the other people involved (mostly taking the form of glowing accounts of Mortenson as a person which, though clearly true, get old after a while). The book would have flowed better if these interviews could have been incorporated into the text with a little more subtlety. I can’t help but wonder how exactly these two men collaborated and what would have changed if they had taken a different approach. I think it would have been more compelling if it had been told in the first person by Mortenson (since he is directly quoted so much of the time anyway).

Three Cups of Tea has been adapted for all age levels so that even American children can be educated about the situation children their own age face half a world away. Three Cups of Tea has also been included in the freshman curriculum at many colleges and universities. In his follow-up, Stones into Schools, Mortenson teams with a different writer, Mike Bryan. I am tempted to see how they have gone about telling a similar story and what changes (if any) there are in the writing style. Overall, Three Cups of Tea was a wonderful story that needed to be told but was terribly written.


Read my review of Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer


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