Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: book review, books, greg mortenson, literature, reading, three cups of tea, volunteer
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.