Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One School at a Time was recommended to me by Amazon since I liked Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. The book starts in a similar vein as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a book about a deadly Everest trip, except that Three Cups takes place near K2 rather than Everest. Three Cups co-author and Central Asia Institute director Greg Mortenson was climbing K2 as a tribute to his deceased sister, when his own life nearly ended. Midway through chapter 1, I thought Three Cups would be a mix between Into Thin Air and Leaving Microsoft, but it never gripped me in the same way the other two books did.

Before returning back to the United States from that fateful trip, Greg Mortenson spent a lengthy period of time in a poor Pakistani village. Disheartened by the fact that the children of that village did not even have a school, he promised to one day return to Korphe to build a school. Several years later, he completed his task with financial help from benefactor Jean Hoerni, whose dying wish was to see a picture of the school he funded. Hoerni's will provided a $1 million endowment to found the Central Asia Institute in 1996. Under Mortenson's leadership, the non-profit funded approximately 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan during its first decade.

The story sounds amazing enough. So why didn't it grip me more? I think there are two main differences between Three Cups of Tea and Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.

First of all, Publisher's Weekly recognized Leaving Microsoft as an "infectiously inspiring read" in which author John Wood "endears himself to the reader with his introspection and honesty." Three Cups also got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, but to me the writing style was not as captivating, and co-author David Oliver Relin's third-person account of Greg Mortenson's life was not nearly as personal as John wood's first-person account of his own life.

Second of all, I was able to identify with John Wood, based on our similar business backgrounds. Greg Mortenson, on the other hand, lived what to me looked like a somewhat directionless life until about the age of 40. In all fairness to him, his parents raised him in Africa while they were missionaries there, then transported him to the United States at the age of 14. Greg never really seemed to adjust to the culture shock. He also had to deal with the deaths of both his sister and father, which I can partially relate to since my own sister died. However, around the age of 40 Mortenson was a climbing bum, living out of his car. He went on to do amazing things, but I have a hard time identifying with him, especially since the things he has done in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been incredibly risky and, at times, foolish. His wife is a saint to let him go there for months at a time. It sounds as though they have a good marriage and are understanding of one another.

Despite our differences, I don't wish to downplay Mortenson's attributes. He is loved almost universally by all who meet with him. He is great friends both Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is significant because (1) Sunnis and Shiites don't always get along despite many shared beliefs, and (2) my understanding is that Americans are about as popular in Pakistan and Afghanistan as Osama bin Laden is in the United States.

I believe Three Cups of Tea is a worthwhile read. It's a story of redemption, compassion, and great personal sacrifice. However, if you're choosing between Three Cups and Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, I strongly recommend the latter. But then again, reading two books instead of one never hurt anybody...

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