Old Man’s River: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N

One of the principles I’m trying to stay with in this series is to ensure that whatever I recommend is generally available; while I want to share “long tail” choices rather than “hit culture” ones, there is no point my doing so unless you can borrow it or buy it.

Recommendation 5: (Book)

The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. The first of a pair of books by Leo Rosten, published during the late 1930s as a compendium of articles in the New Yorker. I was fourteen when I read them, and I was fascinated by the sheer talent of the then 24-year-old Rosten. He was able to make me “hear” the accents of European immigrants wrestling with the complexities of English (albeit the American kind) while adjusting to their new and exciting world.

At that point, I’d never left India myself, and my “knowledge” of the world beyond India’s borders was marginal: largely influenced by film and magazine and book, with the occasional smattering of real-live tourists. What Leo Rosten did was to conjure up the atmosphere in the English language class in a remarkable way, somehow giving me a vicarious feel for the different cultures in that classroom, the personalities, the battles, the joys and despairs.

It is rare enough for a book to be able to do this. Rarer still for one firmly placed in the “Humour” category (I cannot bring myself to spell it Humor). And even rarer for one originally written as a series of articles.

The book is easy to read, you can choose to read it stand-alone chapter by chapter, you don’t even need to read them in sequence. But if you wanted to, you could read it cover to cover in one sitting. There is some overlap with the content and style of George Mikes, another humorist I rate highly. I cannot recommend it highly enough for someone who wants to delve into the nuances of immigrant cultures in newly-adopted lands.

One thought on “Old Man’s River: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N”

  1. Well I’m going to start by thanking amazon for facilitating the provision of secondhand books available from other sellers. So, for 1p + postage I managed to pick up a copy of this wonderful book.

    This version was printed by Penguin Books in 1970 and was sold for 25p but due to the proximity to decimalisation in the UK it also carried the 5/- price to help with comparison of currencies.

    So to the book. I found the language quite exquisite and felt that I had been transported to the classroom of the American Night Schools for Adults. The subtle humour was very well crafted but that did not stop me laughing out loud on a number of occasions.

    Apart from the pure enjoyment I had from reading this over the weekend, thanks for that, I also had a think about the language references you mentioned in your post. I spend a lot of time working closely with many people from India and am also fascinated with some of the phrases that are used on an every day basis such as “please do the needful”. Its really interesting how we take the construction of our own language for granted and don’t even consider how peculiar some of our own phrases might be to those for whom English is their second language. So apart from the fun of reading the book, it has also prompted me to exercise my mind a bit too!

    The final thing that following this little breadcrumb of gold has done for me is that it reminded me of a book I read whilst in hospital, recovering from a major operation on my knee (anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction). The book was given to me by a friend to help “keep my spirits up” and its called A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’m not sure exactly why I thought of it, possibly the genius of Hyman Kaplan and Toole’s Ignatius J Reilly, or maybe its the clever use of language. Either way, its brought back some interesting memories.

    Thanks for the education. Keep ’em coming!

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