Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea isn’t required reading for Peace Corps Volunteers but it might as well be, since half of each year’s training group seems to arrive in Macedonia with gifted copies of this book. It being a truth universally acknowledged that if there are enough free copies of a book floating around I will pick it up, I finally read the damn book. I wish I hadn’t.

This is no doubt a rude-ish statement to make. Judging by the hagiographic tone of the book, supposedly co-written by Greg Mortenson, there’s a solid amount of hero worship for the man, and sometimes probably for good reason. He’s doing work that’s undeniably good-spirited, in a region of the world that doesn’t get its share of international aid. I’m not arguing that providing education to thousands of girls who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school is a bad thing; mostly, I’m arguing that Three Cups of Tea is a really, really poorly written book.

This is purportedly a memoir, but in some indescribable way (like, I don’t know, that he clearly left all the writing to “co-author” David Oliver Relin, or that I can almost feel Relin’s pain as he trudges through event after event, belaboring Mortenson’s heroism…unless that’s my own pain I was feeling) it doesn’t read like one. It’s a piece of journalism, plain and simple, like Rebecca wrote over at Rebecca Reads. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good piece of journalism, in part because of the writing quality, in part because the focus is so often on relatively insignificant details (more on this later), in part because Relin isn’t remotely close to objective. The book reads as hero worship, and by the end, no matter how objectively good Mortenson’s mission may be, I wanted to tear the book in half and proclaim to the world, “This is not how it should be done!

This is not, anyway, the right book to give to a Peace Corps Volunteer. What Mortenson does is on a level apart from our work, and that’s one of the things that frustrated me while reading his book. The mission is admirable. You’d have to be pretty cruel to say that there’s something wrong in building schools where there weren’t previously schools. But there are so many questions unanswered, so many that aren’t even raised in this book.

How are these schools sustainable? The money to build the schools comes from Mortenson’s organization, the money to pay teachers and buy school supplies comes from Mortenson’s organization; so what happens to all these schools the day donations stop rolling in? Sustainability is of course “the” buzzword when you get into development work, and it’s something that’s very difficult to achieve; being in the Peace Corps has taught me that you need to aim low on the sustainability front, and that putting something in place (a contest, a classroom activity, a new section of the library) doesn’t mean it will be utilized once you leave or even take off for a week.

How are the schools organized, in a legal sense? Mortenson works apart from the government, and in the tortuously long build-up to the completion of the first school he builds it’s clear that details such as teacher selection aren’t foremost on Mortenson’s mind. There are clear advantages to working independently, as Mortenson does. He’s able to move across the country quickly, put up schools quickly, and make decisions without working with a possibly uncooperative government. But…. building a school is one thing, but to staff it and provide teaching materials and to form a quality education are different matters altogether. How are all these things handled? Admirable as Mortenson’s mission is, wouldn’t it be better in some ways to seek greater government involvement so that the schools could be part of a more sustainable system the day that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute stops work?

My problems and questions with Mortenson’s work may, though, just be problems with how his work is described in the book. That Relin skips over such vast territory as “Where do the books come from, and what textbooks are used?” or “How are the teachers selected and trained? Are they trained?” is hard for me to understand. The lack of detail on these fronts, as compared to the space given to Mortenson’s relationships and life before starting to build his first school, is genuinely baffling.

All the same, there were parts of the book that I could appreciate for the way they reflect my working situation in the Peace Corps. I’m not working in the sort of volatile environment described in Three Cups of Tea, not by a long shot, but the frustrations of doing work in a developing country are all there. It’s hard work, and frequently messy, and sometimes projects need to be run in unorthodox fashion, and it’s strange and a little disconcerting for me to see it in print.



As we discussed on Twitter, the biggest thing that bothered me about this book was the lack of mention of his family in the US. When he jumped on a plane to the Middle East as soon as he could after 9/11, I was just horrified. Maybe because he was geographically so far from NY made him feel the horror of it less than we did, but I just couldn’t get on board with that decision.

In general, yes he does nice things. I have a feeling that the (rather shallow) point of the book is just to make the readers feel good about that and not have to think too much. Those kinds of questions honestly didn’t occur to me, probably because I’m not in a situation like the one you are, but now that you mention them that’s just another point off Three Cups of Tea in my book. Maybe they do have it all figured out, but the evidence would be nice. Overall, I agree that it was very disappointing especially after all the hype it got.

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

the family stuff got to me too. the post 9/11 stuff didn’t really get me, but there was one incident (in waziristan? before 9/11) that drove home how disorganized mortenson can be when it comes to putting these schools into place. that he would head into an area of the country he didn’t know, without knowing anyone there, is tough for me to stomach, especially given that – like you say – he had a family back home. from the book as a whole i got the sense that there should be at least one more person working on the ground like mortenson does…if the entire organization is built around him, it must put unimaginable stress on his family, force him to travel constantly, and put the future life of the organization at risk. what happens to the central asia institute when mortenson can’t do this sort of work anymore, or 30 years from now when he dies? he may be a powerful figure, but there needs to be someone else there…right?

as for the point of the book as a whole, i’m sure you’re right. getting into the technical details of the schools can’t be good for inspiring reading; unfortunately, it makes the suspicious reader (me) wonder why all these details are left out. as you say, it would be nice to have the evidence that they’ve figured this stuff out. the absence of any may be innocent, but it makes me wonder why it’s not in the book, or on the organization’s website.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve never read this book, but have heard many-a-good things about it from friends. I have to admit, though, that it never truly appealed to me. :/

In relation to sustainability and the total lack of rather important details (training, where things come from, etc.), I think it’s left out because we lay people don’t want to hear about it. We want to read about all the heroism, the soft, good, and fluffy things that someone like us is doing for those less fortunate. We don’t want to know the nitty gritty and we don’t want to think about the future and how these heroic acts could fall apart in two years because of lack of funding, governmental support, etc. We especially don’t want to have to get involved ourselves, heaven forbid.

I am using the term ‘we’ generally, of course. I know there are many people out there who share your sentiments, but I think the general public is much more keen on hearing the golden light of these stories rather than the hard facts of it.

Great post! It was interesting to read from your pov as being in the Peace Corps. :D

Comment by She

yeah, i wonder if i weren’t doing peace corps if i would be as dissatisfied with the book as i am. i think both you and jennifer are correct in thinking that the book doesn’t delve into these issues of sustainability, how the schools are run, etc, because they’re things that would make “three cups” less of a feel-good book than it is. even i feel bad for picking on it… looking at someone’s work, which is really admirable, and criticizing it for issues that may not come into play for years. it’s really interesting to read your thoughts on these issues, thanks for commenting!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I am glad I’m not alone in frustration with this book, and the issues you address about the flaws to his plans — and the things you mention in the comments about him going into unknown areas — are the reasons why I thought Greg himself was lacking some degree of common sense, even as he succeeds in a a remarkable project to bring education to those who need it.

It’s also interesting to hear your prospective as a part of the peace corps.

Comment by rebeccareid

It’s really frustrating because it seems like this would be a really interesting book, but so badly written that it’s not worth it. I admit,I’ve steered myself away from it…

Comment by Amanda

i wish i’d done the same…if i could go back, i’d read some articles on mortenson’s work rather than the book itself. i suspect i could have gotten a clearer picture of how the schools are run if i’d done this.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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