Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

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

Date finished: 6/27/11

If you’re a fan of “60 Minutes” or have paid just a bit of attention to the news, you’re probably aware that Greg Mortenson is facing lawsuits regarding the use of the money given to his charity and the validity of the stories he’s told in his books, this one included.

I tried to block most of that out and read the book, which I’d promised to read this summer with a friend. The basic storyline of Three Cups of Tea is simple: Greg Mortenson is a climber who has gone to Pakistan to climb K2. He is part of a failed expedition and gets a little lost on his return, wandering into a small village named Korphe where the people take care of him and welcome him. Before he leaves, he promises to build a school in Korphe so that girls have a place to learn and this book tells the story of how that happened—and how that one decision led Mortenson to create a charity that has supposedly built 55 schools in Pakistan.

It’s a great story, encouraging and enlightening, even inspiring. But it’s hard to read this book in light of the recent allegations and scrutiny Mortenson is facing. I never really felt that his stories were out-and-out untrue, but I did wonder sometimes if they were exaggerated.

My biggest problem with this book isn’t whether it’s completely true or not, though the doubts overshadowing it did bother me. My biggest issue has to do with the book’s tone and some editing choices Mortenson’s editor or cowriter (who I think probably wrote most of the book from conversations with Mortenson) made. The book is written in third person and peppered with direct quotations from Mortenson about the situation being discussed. It isn’t dialogue; it’s thoughts he had about the topic later on, with 20/20 hindsight.That makes this book read more like an extending magazine article than a biographical account.

And most of the quotes come off as self-righteous and make Mortenson seem like someone who likes to brag on himself. I don’t find that quality particularly attractive and when you’re reading chapter after chapter of it, it gets bit annoying.

My second issue has to do with how the writers and editors handled flashbacks or auxiliary information that wasn’t absolutely necessary to get the drift of the story. As a reader it was frustrating to me to be reading along about something Mortenson was doing in Pakistan and being interested in that, then to find myself reading three paragraphs about Sir Edmund Hillary or previous K2 expeditions or the background behind yak butter tea. I understand why the editors included these bits of extra information or flashbacks, but instead of deftly weaving them into the story and making sure that the information all furthered the goal of each chapter’s part of the tale, the writers and editors just launched into these connected, but not vital tales, without so much as a transition or informing the reader why it was important they know such indepth information about whatever it was at that moment. It broke the flow of the story to suddenly be reading about something that was only tangentially related to the topic, then go back to the Mortenson plot line you were actually interested in without so much as a transition. As an editor, I want there to be a purpose and a reason for every word, phrase, and paragraph I include in the pieces I edit. It’s not that I don’t think these stories added anything to the story; they provided much-needed background, but they killed the momentum of the writing and distracted the reader from the storyline the writer most wanted to tell. In my mind, that’s not good editing, since for me, and editor’s job is to find all the diamond pieces in someone’s text, put them together, and make it shine.

Overall, Three Cups of Tea is an interesting, informative read, but it’s not one I’d read again, and on a purely literary level, the writing doesn’t deserve many awards. But the story, even if only portions of it are true, deserves to be told.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Three Cups of Tea”

  1. I would like to claim credit for making it up, but it’s a word! The adverb form of tangent. (Yes, I looked it up.)

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