“Stones Into Schools”

Recently, the truthfulness of Greg Mortenson’s memoir, “Stones into Schools”, was called into question by 60 minutes. The report questioned some of the events described in the book by author. The author’s troubles apparently don’t end with alleged falsification. Mortenson, a mountaineer and philanthropist who founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI) for the purpose of promoting female education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has also been accused of misappropriating funds donated to his charity. The 60 minutes report featured Jon Krakauer, a journalist, fellow mountaineer and former donor to CAI who investigated aspects of Mortenson’s story, and found them lacking in veracity. It appears at the time of this writing (April 29, 2011) that Mortenson has not answered the charges to the media’s liking. But since one is innocent until proven guilty, I decided to go ahead and read the book, seeing that I coincidentally borrowed the book from the library a week earlier. It seemed like good timing, given the controversy.

I can’t be sure how much the 60 Minutes interview influenced my interpretation. But I have to say for the most part, I was quite disappointed with the book, whether or not it was real. Mortenson has all the ingredients he needed to make a great story, but yet it seemed he burned the final product in the oven big time. I don’t how you can make a mountaineering adventure of an idealistic underdog fighting tyranny sound tedious and boring. But I give him credit, Mortenson managed to do that. I have read textbooks which had a more exciting narrative to it. This, to say the least, was disappointing in itself.

From my view, the basic literary failure of Mortenson’s narration was his delivery. Throughout the book, Mortenson summarized days, weeks and sometimes months of scenes in pages and pages of writing. It is as though Mortenson was unsure what he was supposed to put in the book, and what to leave out. For something that wasn’t intended as graduate level science or philosophy, I had to constantly reread the text just to get the information down. Many times, it didn’t help, because after all the reams of details I wasn’t necessarily sure what the point was.

The other major failure that came across to me was Mortenson’s grandstanding, which I suppose was his tactic to inspire people to hand money over to his charity. The book was rife with anecdotes of Afghani and Pakistani people flying out of yurts and caves, begging for the American to give them education for girls and of Mortenson being so grateful to be there for them. It is as though the author believes there was something special about him and his particular ministry that drew these people to him (if indeed they did). He doesn’t seem to take into consideration that he may have just been an item of curiosity, or that the people who seemed so gushing with gratitude at seeing him might say the same things to any Westerner with overblown promises. He comes off as hopelessly naive while blind to his own self-importance.

Mortenson describes himself as introverted and not wanting to call attention to himself, but he really doesn’t seem to have a big problem telling everyone in this book how great he was for all the work he did. This fault was a more egregious offense to me than the summarizing. In fact, his grandstanding was the only thing that came across to me in the book. From the narrative, you would think that Mortenson single-handedly brought fighting tribes, Taliban, and NATO troops to together with his particular brand of call to action from how he described how people viewed him and his charity. Last I checked in the news, I don’t think all this free-to-be-you-and-me fraternity he supposedly created has quite happened yet on any significant level, and certainly not because of one American man with one Western non-governmental organization amongst many in the region.

As you have probably figured out by now, I’m not a big fan of this book. Of course, it is only my opinion, and there are apparently many people who find Mortenson’s work and writing inspiring. Perhaps you would be one of them. As I have said before, I don’t know how much I was affected by Krakauer’s statements in the 60 Minutes report. Maybe my overview would have been more charitable (no pun intended) if I hadn’t seen the interview. But this is my take on the book, so as far as I am concerned, it’s not really worth the read. A similar book which I have reviewed and believe to be much better is “Half the Sky” by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a more generalized book about the plight of women around the world, but the authors cover the issue of female literacy with more clarity and more believability than “Stones into Schools”. It just didn’t come across to me as an honest book. And as a book that was purportedly intended to promote justice, I believe this makes the book fail in the worst possible way.