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SAME-NAME GAMES
By By Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Calvin College professor of English

 

Thanks to students who relish teaching an old dog a new trick, I'm slowly learning my way around the Internet. Trying to relate to their prof, they've described the wonders of the Amazon.com website. So when my son's book came out recently, I searched for it at the Big Bookstore of the Ether. Success! I considered accepting the invitation to write the first customer review, pseudonymously, but the reach exceeded my technological grasp. Anyway, democracy has its limits, and maybe we shouldn't encourage book reviewing as an outlet for egalitarian impulses.

Since my son and I bear the same name, I couldn't help noticing titles of mine. Forgive me, but I clicked on one. Yes, as a student of mine had told me, the slim volume was now up to a price of $89.95, which had caused my student to scratch it from his list of possible Christmas gifts but which I naturally took as proof that the value of my wisdom is increasing over time. Somehow, by unretraceable clicks, I ended up on a title twenty years old and out of print. And ethereally attributed to Erik Homburger Erikson.

Now, this famous psychoanalytical writer has a long list of titles under his name and does not need to have a book of mine exported to him by some non-bookworm typing in entries unawares. I have heard that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but I didn't know it happened this way.

Is there some explanation other than (admittedly puzzling) clerical error for how this injustice was perpetrated? Probably not, but maybe. My all-time favorite review of a book of mine lavishly praised this very title, Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision, for its various manifest virtues. When the review got around to lauding the same lucid prose style that marked the author's Young Man Luther, I was unnerved, somewhat crestfallen. Against my self-interest, I had to question the rest of the praise. Was it mere displacement to me of the honor due a big name?

That was the first time that Erik Erikson--no fault of his--stole that book from me. For years, this error gave me something to say at social gatherings where small talk sets a low ceiling on bookishness. Now that the error is doubled, my amusement is becoming slightly tinctured by annoyance. Where do I go in this kafkaesque world to get justice done and my book back?

Not to the magazine editor who once sent an honorarium check to my son instead of me. Not to Jerry Falwell, either. A certain Edward L. Ericson, prominent in secular-humanist circles and also more famous than I, once wrote a column scorning Christian education, and some good speller, fingering me as the culprit, turned me in to Rev. Falwell, who promptly informed his newsletter readers that yet another defection had occurred among Christian college professors. I gained momentary notoriety as a sure signal of impending apocalypse. (Edward L., when I shared this episode with him, took too much pleasure from my pain.)

As for that wayward reviewer of two decades ago, I would have felt better if he had explained how Erikson had traversed from his psychoanalytical Luther to his moral Solzhenitsyn. Did he have a conversion experience of sorts? But the reviewer was a psychologist, and perhaps he thought of morality as merely a subset of psychology.

I would feel better now if the Amazon.com data enterer were a bookworm, after all, and an assiduous reader of old reviews. But the faulty review appeared in a suitably obscure periodical. No, short of some explanation by the astrologers in profuse supply these days, I am left with no answer better than coincidence for this double theft.

This story has three morals. There is no justice in this world. Never trust a review written by a psychologist. And don't believe what your computer tells you. How can I teach my computer-savvy students that third one? For starters, I can tell them my computer recommends on spell-check that in exchange for Erikson I enter Iroquoian.

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