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Christy Catherine Marshall

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August 17, 2010

Over the summer, while browsing through my Auburn University alumni magazine, I was surprised to learn that all 4,000 incoming freshmen are being encouraged to read a book together: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.


Wow. That’s a major book club, don’t you think?

It’s part of the Common Book program that more than 100 universities are starting to participate in. This reminds me of our own community’s Big Read last spring, when we all read To Kill a Mockingbird together. Can you see how a bookish person likes me gets excited about these types of programs?

So, I had Three Cups of Tea on my mind all summer, wondering what’s so great about it that an entire university would be reading it together. Sure, it was a #1 New Times Bestseller for months, but just because it’s selling millions of copies doesn’t mean I’m going to fall in love with it.

But I did. Oh … there is something rich between the covers of this book that reached the core of me. It’s changed the way I view the world. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it, if you haven’t yet. Especially if you’re a woman. Read it, and you’ll understand.

The story begins with Greg Mortenson’s failure to climb the K2 mountain in Pakistan, the second highest mountain in the world. He almost froze to death one night when the porter carrying his heavy backpacks disappeared far ahead. Greg wandered around lost for a while, and ended up in a village called Korphe.

While staying in this village a while to recover his strength, he was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people. There were children everywhere, and when he asked the elders where these kids go to school, he got some sad looks.

He discovered dozens of children huddled together in the freezing cold scribbling their math equations into the dirt with sticks. From this point on, he vowed that he would someday return to this village and build them a school.

The book is a page turner. He goes from one hard time to another — living out of his car trying to scrape together his own meager living and keep his dream alive. He writes 300 letters on a rented typewriter until some kind soul shows him how to use the “cut and paste” option on a computer, and then he sends out 280 more. At last he finds a person willing to back him up financially so he can build that first school, Dr. Jean Hoerni.

The rest of the book recounts the trials and adventures Mortenson encounters as he builds that first school in Korphe — which leads to launching a whole organization, Central Asia Institute, dedicated to promoting world peace through education. He builds not only schools, but also relationships with people in the war-torn regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.


As you’re reading, you suddenly get the big picture that schools lead to educated minds who are less likely to be recruited by terrorists, and who are less likely to strap bombs to themselves and blow things up.

You realize books lead to peace. And so Mortenson’s mission becomes your own.

There’s now a Young Reader’s edition, which has full-color pictures and a simplified text. I think this would be a fantastic book for teachers or parents to read out loud. Students can also participate in the Pennies for Peace program.



The title of the book comes from the way in which the people in central Asia conduct business. Mortenson’s mentor, Haji Ali, teaches him:

The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.

If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to watch this short interview with Greg Mortenson. You’ll be amazed. I can definitely understand why an entire campus will be reading and discussing this book together, and who knows how many new dreams will be launched from this shared experience.

(I’ve heard the story continues, with the 2009 published sequel, Stones into Schools.)

All photos are complements of Central Asia Institute.




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