Before I launch into a proper review of this book, I need to discuss a few things:
First of all, a warning: I am the worst possible book borrower in the world. I still have a book I borrowed from a friend about, oh, four months ago, a book I promised to return before the end of the summer. In case you hadn’t noticed, it is definitely not summer anymore. And this one? I borrowed it from a friend at work and, two days after I took it home, informed her that I owe her a book. My precious little girl got a hold of it and two seconds later, had the back cover dangling from her little teeth. So, a warning to all you people who think I would love your favourite book on your shelf, the one you read once a year just to be reminded: send me to the library. Seriously.
Secondly, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m really not very good at keeping up with new literature. I know this book came out a few years ago. If I were a proper reviewer, I would have picked it up and read it the week it came out, and had a review up the next week. Or, even better, I would have got my hands on an advanced copy and had a review out before all of you could even think about reading it. But I don’t have nearly enough clout to draw the attention of any publishers who might care about my reviews.
So, here I am, writing about this book 4 years after it swept through all the best selling lists.
But that’s OK. The thing about North America is that we forget really easily. We read books like these, allow them to touch us, then put them on the shelf and leave them there, their sharp messages dulling over time until we’ve mostly forgotten the way they inspired us. So, maybe a review a few years too late isn’t such a bad thing.
This book was beautiful.
Yes, the writing is clunky. Actually, if you were to analyze it for its literary value alone, it would score pretty low. It takes a while to get used to the style that seems to be a cross between over-blown prose and dry, journalistic reporting. When I first started reading, I was certain I wouldn’t make it to the end: non-fiction and I don’t have a great track record to begin with.
But then, about a quarter of the way into the book as Greg Mortenson’s first school project got under way and hit road block after road block, I found myself sitting on the bus frantically blinking back tears, desperately hoping none of my fellow travelers noticed my struggle for control. It wasn’t the language that got to me. It wasn’t the writing. It wasn’t the descriptions of the struggling, but happy, hospitable people of Pakistan. It was the words that came directly from Greg Mortenson, Haji Ali, Twaha, his daughter, and countless others involved with the project’s evolution.
Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how important education truly is. Since finishing university, I’ve run more and more often into an ideology that believes we are uselessly over-educated, that education is squashing our potential. I have friends who believe they have wasted 5 years of their life studying. I don’t know how to respond to their beliefs because I can’t say for sure I don’t share them. How did reading a ridiculous number of books in a short time and writing increasingly complicated papers prepare me for writing repetitive help files and proposals in the IT industry? How did it prepare me for whatever is going to come after this? When am I ever going to get paid for writing essays?
Of course, there are the boilerplate answers: “School taught you how to think.” “Writing papers taught you how to write.” “Your classes taught you how to interact confidently with teachers and classmates.” All fair answers. But couldn’t I have learned all that elsewhere?
“A degree gives you more money.”
In Pakistan, education means so much more. It’s more than getting a good job and making a decent paycheque so you can live in a decent apartment, have a decent dog, buy some decent clothes, and maybe one day, own a decent house. Education means a better life, a better town, a better country. Education means a chance to discover dreams and, if you’re really lucky, pursue them. Education means being able to recognize the extremism around you and respond to it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Education means peace. If the troops were in Afghanistan specifically to bring building materials to the towns and villages there, specifically to listen to, recognize, and help to fix the needs of the people, I could stand behind the Canadian presence there.
Reading this book made me wish I could have the gumption of Greg Mortenson to discover a need in the world and, instead of just throwing a few measly dollars at it, actually do something about it. Can we do as much from the comfort of our homes? I doubt it. But wait. If we all picked up and went to places like Pakistan, who would support us as Mortenson was supported? And, even worse, would we be running all over the people of those places who might rise to the challenge of addressing their own needs, thereby making them stronger? And, even worse than that, would we invent needs in peoples that live in such an alien, foreign way to us, place our North American values over top a culture in which they don’t fit and squash out the beauty of diversity in the world?
We need more Greg Mortensons, yes. But we also need more encouragers and donors to support the Greg Mortensons of the world, the people who can recognize the beauty of other places and other people and encourage them, help them along. I do believe we can do as much good as long as we recognize our own privilege, our own wealth, our own excess and open up our hearts, our hands, our eyes, not to an undeveloped world that needs molding, but to a world that needs to discover its own development.
While I strive to discover a generosity that can help to change the world, I’m going to hold on to my education with as much gratitude as I can muster. It’s the least I can do.