Friday, August 1, 2008

Thank God for Required Reading!

Though I’m not normally a fan of bestsellers, especially those that might be deemed ‘inspirational,’ I’m making an exception for Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It was an assigned reading for work, and I was more than skeptical about it; a friend had called it self-serving, and it had all the earmarks of the book de jour—every mother at the pool who was sipping a fancy coffee or bottled water seemed to be reading it. It looked like this summer’s Water for Elephants. I’m sure the film rights have already been sold for a tidy sum, so that Hollywood can produce one of those inspirational blockbusters that is based on a true story. Not normally my cup of tea, so to speak, but it was our required summer reading, so as July drew to an end, I decided it was time to take my first step toward getting ready for the new school year. What I found was an engaging and moving story, a riveting adventure tale that never swayed from its ethical center nor succumbed to self-righteous finger-wagging.

Three Cups of Tea is a nonfiction work about Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who, after a failed attempt to conquer K2, finds his calling building schools, especially for girls, in the most isolated, rugged, and impoverished nooks and crannies of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a remarkably difficult and dangerous task in the best of times, and one that becomes even more complicated and risky after the events of September 11, 2001—with a missionary zeal that seems genetic. That summary however doesn’t do justice to the narrative momentum of the book. There’s almost an Indiana Jones sense of tempo and adventure made all the more compelling by the fact that its nonfiction, and that Mortenson has a real moral purpose.

Let’s set aside the message of the book for a moment though to look at what makes it a compelling read. It has high altitude adventure; holiday season heartbreak; the penniless, jobless, homeless, loveless, clueless blues; a whirlwind romance; long odds; fantastic coincidences; a protagonist with a monastic devotion to a seemingly quixotic quest and a comic cluelessness of how to go about achieving it; a protagonist constitutionally inured to discomfort; a kidnapping; war; terrorists; foreign journalists; an international cast of strong-spined characters; fatwas; cultural clashes, both comic and menacing. This is a partial list, but my point here is that the book is fun to read, which is reason to pick it up.

Mortenson comes across as truly heroic, and while that makes reading the book a pleasure, it may also be the book’s major fault. This is almost a hagiography, and one in which the subject is also the co-author. I really wish Mortenson wasn’t identified as a co-author. The book is written in the third person, and Mortenson comes across as the kind of hero the world is always in need of, that is one who is selflessly devoted to the greater good, regardless of small minds and short-sightedness on the local and global levels. And part of what the book always makes clear is that it takes a village (a global one in this case) to support a hero. Without Mortenson these wonderful projects would never have happened, but it’s also true, and readily acknowledged, that he could not have pulled these projects off without the support of a huge web of individuals. If I just think about the text of the book I am sucked in and moved, but when I remember that Mortenson is the co-author I become skeptical for a moment. If a journalist throws aside objectivity to write an unabashed hagiography that says something about how persuasive his or her subject is, but when the subject himself is saying these things about himself, it seems to undercut the claims about his humility. It’s a real complaint, but it’s not enough to substantially dampen my enthusiasm for this book.

Three Cups of Tea is the most inspirational book I’ve read since Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson. But that’s a horse of an entirely different breed and color.

(If you order Three Cups of Tea from the link above, 7% of the purchase goes toward a girls’ education scholarship in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

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