The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (originally published under the name Leonard Q Ross)

I bought this book after hearing it described by someone being interviewed on the radio. I pick up a lot of recommendations from listening to people talk about books, usually on the radio. It is hilarious, humane and gentle. No wonder it is a classic to so many people.

It is really a short collection of stories from the New Yorker, where they were first published. The main character, Hyman Kaplan, is a Polish immigrant, learning English for citizenship purposes in the US. All the stories are set in his class at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults. The characters are sketched in with a few subtle strokes but the real comedy lies in the language and the misunderstandings of the students, recounted with a sympathetic irony that keeps it very well clear of any patronising, English-centric, cheap shots.

One of the worst programmes ever created for television in the UK was called Mind Your Language, based in an English class for foreigners. It was screened in the 1970s and was cliched, xenophobic and really, really unfunny. This book might well have been the programme’s ‘inspiration’ but the difference in quality and humanity is striking.

A lovely book.


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