Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Books Make A Difference

Three weeks ago I read Mortenson's bestselling non-fiction book (co-authored – although most likely fully-authored – by David Oliver Relin) Three Cups of Tea. I'd put the book on my semester reading list because I'd bought the book some time ago with the idea that it was a book I should read, but had never gotten around to actually cracking open.

Two weeks ago I sent to my advisor my final reading commentary, a paper I'd written about this book, and specifically about the real-life character of Mortenson. While so many criticisms of the book online focused on how Mortenson came off in the book as some idealized hero with superhuman abilities, a person who was too good to be true, I wrote my paper on Mortenson's flaws, which, if you read the book closely enough, are glaring. The fact is that these flaws – his lack of ability to manage finances, his somewhat haphazard planning skills, his scant understanding of the way the Middle East culture works, his tendency towards depression and withdrawal – all serve to make his accomplishments even greater. Who among the best of us could take off for a land where we don't know the language and customs and determine to build schools for children there? A deeply flawed hero is the kind we truly root for, because we want to believe we ourselves have the capacity for heroism, despite our shortcomings.

(If you are interested in more of what I wrote about flawed characters, you can read about it here on the 4Corners blog.)

But even as I wrote the paper, I wondered how Mortenson could continue to be successful. Although some of the stories in the book raised my eyebrows in a James-Frey-has-struck-again way, my biggest question was how Mortenson has managed to keep this operation going, and how he will continue to do so. It's clear in the book that he doesn't keep good track of the money he spends, a huge problem if he wants to keep his company non-profit. He seems to build often with only sketchy plans, adapting as he goes, even if that means gathering all the supplies to build and then realizing there is no road to get those supplies to the intended town.

The fact is, the warning signs are in his own book.

So it didn't surprise me that a week ago – only two weeks after my own reading – Jon Krakauer countered Mortenson's book with one of his own. In it, he lays out the very clear and convincing evidence that some of Mortenson's book is flat out lies, and much of the rest of it is half-truths. The most damning part of his expose, though, is in the chapters where he questions how Mortenson's charity is run, and where the money is going.

If you are interested in reading Krakauer's book, I highly recommend it. It's short - only about 77 pages - and I read the entirety of it during my daughter's swim team practice. It's well-written, well-organized, and easy to follow. You can download a copy here.

Some people have come out against Krakauer for writing this, calling it everything from sour grapes to worse. But the fact is, Krakauer had a moral and ethical obligation to bring to light what he'd discovered. Why? Because the book was not just a book; it's a money making machine.

The world cried foul when James Frey admitted making up parts of his memoir, and that was really no skin off anyone's nose other than a hurt ego for believing him. Mortenson's book, on the other hand, has spawned a money-eliciting empire. He is pulling in millions of dollars for his charity, money that donators are told will be going to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, when in reality, much of it is not. My children have contributed from their own piggy banks in his "Pennies for Peace" campaign in the schools, and that money is abused and misused. There is little accountability for the dollars that come in to the Central Asia Institute.

There is both good and bad news here. The good is that books really do make a difference. They can make someone see the world in a new light. Feel hope. Feel called to action. Believe they can play a part in changing the world for the better.

But there is an accountability that comes with that, too. One that can't be taken too lightly.


  1. And one must be more discerning in this age where information is abundant. With more information, there is more potential for a society of 'posers' and for untruths to become 'truth.' I know I shall still have times I will be deceived as imposters become more prevalent in today's world. My hope is that people like Kraukauer will continue to question creating a ripple effect for others to be, like you say, accountable and readers more discerning.

  2. To tell you the truth, I am getting tired of people who write books like this and have this wonderful story, then it turns out most of it was a big lie. There was another gal who wrote about her experience in the Holocaust, I believe, and it was entirely made up. So, so sad that they have to do this, especially when there are many LEGITIMATE writers who have amazing stories to tell and aren't given the chance. :-)

  3. This has all made me sick-to-my-stomach sad. I read THREE CUPS OF TEA a few years ago with a book club and was so excited about Mortenson's Pennies for Peace (children making a difference for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan by donating small change) that brought the idea to my classroom. My students raised over $400 that school year.

    Please, please tell me that money was somehow used for those children.

    It's interesting that John Krakauer is the one to break this story. I LOVE his writing. Still, ugh. This one hurts.

  4. As you know, I just blogged about this, too. :)

    What's most hurtful is how he manipulated everyone's good intentions, especially the children who participated in the Pennies project. If he had an ounce of decency, he'd take the majority of the money that ended up in his own pocket and give it to the non-profit, where contributors actually thought it was going.

  5. Wow. I never read the book, and now I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad you posted this because I caught a snippet of this on the tv the other night but not enough to figure out what the hullabaloo was about. now I know!

    I hate the word hullabaloo....I don't know why i used it!

  6. This is only sort of on topic. I love to use real places in my books, but it requires a bit of research. my friend NEVER uses real places, always made up ones.
    I think anyone who's putting themselves out there, needs to have some accountability for what they're writing.
    My thing is that I put my own memories and experiences into everything I write. Right now I'm using a lot of facts from court case of my husband's, but it's still FICTION, because I'm making things up. I hate this lean toward memoirs, that are really only half memoir. WRITE FICTION. This is what I want to scream to people who change their stories.

  7. That's crazy. I never read that book, but my sister did and I talked with her about it. I'll have to pass this on. Then again, you have to wonder...will Relin retaliate with Three Cups of the REAL TRUTH. I mean, this could go on forever. You can write a novel exposing another, but aren't you just asking for somebody to expose you? Maybe I don't make any sense.