Three Cups of Controversy

I read Three Cups of Tea (2007) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin during 3 a.m. feedings with my newborn daughter. Each time she woke me in the early morning hours to feed, I snapped on a small desk lamp with a dimmer, sat in the pink gingham rocking chair with my squalling daughter, and picked up the book for the latest installment of Mortenson’s mountain climbing, school-building adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  After 30 minutes or so, Baby Daphne was satisfied and sleepy, and I was ready to return to dreamland.  I repeated this several times each night for a few weeks.  I kept my copy of the book on the dresser in her room and slowly worked my way through it during the midnight hours.


I read it with my neighborhood book group.  I was delighted that somebody had picked it, as it was one that I wanted to read.  Its status as the book club “pick” moved it quickly to the top of my list, and I slowly read about Mortenson’s bad luck, financial troubles, good heart, and adventurous spirit.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially given that his goal was to educate girls.  I am a fan of education for girls, and I recently read Malala’s book, which has a similar theme. Any book that promotes education, especially for women and girls, is of interest to me.

However, a year or so after I had read Three Cups of Tea and discussed it thoroughly with the women in my neighborhood, I heard about a controversy surrounding this book.  Was Mortenson not all he was cracked up to be?  Did he exaggerate the truth, take credit for others’ work, and pocket much of the money he claimed to be using for charitable purposes?

It seems like many books in the last decade have been revealed as “frauds” or less than truthful.  James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) comes to mind, and although I haven’t read it, I was thoroughly outraged at his calumny.  Ha ha, not really.  I didn’t care much, but I did feel bad for the embarrassment it caused Oprah.  I kept hearing people say that he should have presented it as fiction and it would’ve been fine, but we all know how hard it is to break into the fiction market. Why not write a crazy story and call it a memoir?

What do you think?  Does controversy ruin a perfectly good book, or does it just add to its bestseller status?  Are you more likely to read a book once you hear its “tainted”?  I still haven’t reached for Frey’s book, so I think my answer is “no,” although, as I explained recently, a banned book does hold appeal for me as a reader.