Another “non-fiction” best-seller bites the dust. It appears Greg Mortenson was at times more interested in self-promotion and puffery than the truth when he “wrote” Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time. (It’s obvious to me, that the bulk of the writing in this collaborative effort went to the actual trained writer: David Oliver Relin.) Things turned south for this feel-good publishing phenomenon (years and years on the New York Times bestseller list!), when the muckraking CBS television newsmagazine 60 Minutes revealed on Sunday that facts in the book were in serious dispute, and that the organization that Mortenson founded to promote education in Pakistan and Afghanistan was funneling money, lots of it, to him instead.
Viking, the book’s publisher, has announced that it will “carefully review the materials” in question with Mortenson. As for the “author,” he is in ultra-spin mode, issuing a carefully worded non-denial denial, calling the 60 Minutes report “a distorted picture,” but not addressing the specific allegations head-on.
Mortenson has clearly done some good work, but it’s also clear that he’s been engaging in several shady hustles. He should have listened more closely to his better angels.
Let me share with you a little secret: some things in this great world actually do happen, or do exist. These are called “facts.” If you put together a story that is supported by facts, it is called a “true story,” a news story or non-fiction. This is what historians and journalists (most of them, anyway) specialize in. If you make something up, or pass along the unsubstantiated tales of others, it’s called fiction. If you tell people that your fiction is true when it’s not, that’s called a “lie.”
So simple, but so often people get these eternal verities wrong.
Like Rachel Dry in Sunday’s Washington Post. In an opinion piece in the Outlook section (where she is an assistant editor), she weighs in on the John Steinbeck/Travels With Charley in Search of America controversy. Basically, this “journalist” concludes that she is not much concerned about matters such as “the truth” when it comes to Steinbeck’s classic American travelogue, parts of which have been recently debunked. If truth doesn’t matter to this journalist, why not just switch professions? And if Steinbeck had such difficulty telling the truth, why didn’t he just label his book as fiction?
In fact, truth does matter. Our search for truth and our constant desire to expand our body of knowledge defines who we are, and is the only way we can survive on this great world. This search is what drives us forward in the natural sciences and social sciences, learning about ourselves, and the world we live in. From there, progress becomes possible, not to mention communication, cooperation and understanding among people from near and far.
And here’s an added benefit if you choose to respect the truth: intelligent people will then believe you, whether you are a journalist, novelist, politician or corporate CEO.
Working on the life story of Beverly Eckert often had my thoughts wandering in new directions and old. I was looking ahead, pondering what I would write about next. But I was also returning to those most basic questions that vex every thinking person: Who am I? What does my life mean? What should I be striving for? For Beverly, the loss of her life partner on 9/11 set her on a new course, and gave her a crystal-clear vision of who she was and what she wanted to accomplish in this world. She worked tirelessly to make our country safer, so that the mistakes and shortcomings of the pre-9/11 world would not recur. But she also threw herself into projects aimed at making the world — or at least her corner of it — a better place. Beverly wielded construction tools in Slidell, Louisiana with other Habitat for Humanity volunteers, building homes for those in need. She tutored students several times a week at the elementary school around the corner from her home in Stamford, Connecticut. And she taught art to the elderly in a nearby nursing home. helping others, she found, was her purpose in life.
My ruminations led me toward the idea of “civilization.” This complex concept seemed to embody all that we strive for. My next book could look at what civilization meant in the past, what we have inherited and preserved from our ancestors, and what we value now and will pass on to our children and grandchildren. Grand stuff, eh?
Now comes a review in today’s Washington Post of just such a book. Great minds.. John Armstrong has written In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Reviewer Michael Dirda presents these words of summary:
There’s much else in this carefully written book: reflections on barbarism and decadence; a defense of “charm” in education; thoughts on the true experience of art; and the importance of transmitting to others what we love. In particular the study of history, philosophy and the arts can supply us with “ideal achievements” worth emulating and integrating into our present-day lives. …
It’s a serious book, written with directness and simplicity, about what it means to live — in every sense — a good life.
The achievements of earlier civilizations have much to offer us in the way of shining examples. So do the lives of people who have learned through insight and the furnace of experience how to live a good life.