three cups of teaHere are a few things I’m suspicious of:

  1. A book with two authors. It’s kind of like having too many cooks in the kitchen.
  2. A book in which one of the two authors is the main subject of the book.
  3. A book in which even though one of the authors is the main subject of the book, the book is written in third person.
  4. Cultural imperialism.

With these four suspicions in mind, I started in on Three Cups of Tea, which was my book club’s choice for this month. Mortenson is a quirky do-gooder who commits himself to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to educate the poor (especially the girls) who are so often lost in the rural mountains of these isolated areas. He started his quest after stopping in a small village after failing to climb K2 in the early 1990s and since then has built over 50 schools, health centers, and women’s centers.

There were lots of things I liked about this book. First off, I love reading adventure stories about far-away places, and learning more about the variety of cultures in Islamic Pakistan and various other -stans was enough to pull me all the way through the book. I also love reading about single-minded esoteric people with crazy missions who stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. Thirdly, I love the idea of fighting the war on terror through education instead of fighting – it seems like it will be more successful long-term and way less expensive, not to mention way, way, less violent.

I’m not sure I was so hot on the book itself – the writing wasn’t interesting (and it had so many chances to be) and, more importantly, the book was terribly skewed in Mortenson’s direction. He’s referred to as a hero at least a few times a chapter and praised non-stop by the people around him. Only smaller sub-prose hints clue you in to the real negative stuff – which I’m as interested in as the positive stuff: Mortenson is kind of crazy and obsessed, he has trouble with delegating jobs to people and handling money, he unapologetically spends months and months away from his family in Montana. He seems to be hurting his health in order to continue with his cause.

Now, I think these negatives could have been dealt with well by the authors – I don’t think any hero is all good or absolutely flawless. In fact, most people who have ever accomplished great things have more than his or her share of weirdo personal problems. I would have loved for the book to explore his flaws in light of his accomplishments instead of brushing his flaws to the side and dropping the Hero-bomb over and over again.

By the end of the book, I felt pretty good about his mission in general, thought. I haven’t taken any developmental studies classes and I don’t know much about rural development, but I can’t see how building schools and educating girls could possibly hurt anything. I was impressed by the way Mortenson adapted to the Islamic culture – learning the languages, dressing the part, and even learning to pray to Allah. He didn’t seem into forcing Western ideas onto the villages, beyond simple wants to educate and equalize.

More than that, though, I was interested in learning about how the Taliban is using the same tactics as Mortenson in order to win support in these rural areas – and they are winning. They have already established tons of schools called madrassas in these places, barring women and teaching only Islam and warfare. They also offer something that is rare in these isolated areas: paid employment. If Mortenson is right, giving these people options other than joining the Taliban, and giving them schools where you learn basic skills instead of extremist propaganda, might be the best step toward a long-term solution for everyone.

I just wish the book had been less one-sided and had a little more depth. It seemed like they were hammering three or four main points over and over again instead of getting inside the issues and really exploring how these schools are changing the region – beyond hyperbole and anecdote.

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