Sunday, June 11, 2023

Choosing to say goodbye with a book

I am about to retire from my full-time job at the university where I’ve been teaching for the past 12 years. The school has offered me an office to use in retirement and the opportunity to teach from time to time if they want me to and I’m so inclined.

For the past several weeks as this year’s classes drew to a close, I’ve been recycling unneeded items, packing up boxes and generally preparing for the move. One can accumulate a lot of stuff in a dozen years, and slowly I’ve been trying to winnow that stuff down to a manageable mountain. What I have most of is books, shelves and shelves of books.

Some are related to what I teach. Others are about topics I find interesting or written by authors I enjoy reading, including a few former students. Many are duplicates of books I have on my shelves at home.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that many of the books might be as or more useful to others, particularly the students with whom I’ve worked.

As current and former students have been visiting for advice or to say goodbye, I have told each of them to take any book from my office shelves. Some students are hesitant at first, likely knowing how much I cherish books and wanting to make sure I actually want them to have them. Once I reassure them, none have passed up the offer.

Some go for a particular book — something on writing or a copy of one of the books I’ve written. Others have asked me to choose a title for them. For the latter, I always ask them what they are interested in reading. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s about politics. A few have asked me to choose a book for them that I found particularly useful or meaningful.

One student chose a paperback copy of George Herbert’s poetry and noted handwritten notes in the page margins. “Is this your handwriting?” she asked. I had to look at it to remember, but it indeed was my writing from 40 years ago when I was in graduate school. When I confirmed it was my writing, she got a little teary-eyed, which I presumed wasn’t because the book was not in pristine condition.

Most of the students ask me to write a note to them in the book, which I gladly do.

The best part of the job has been working with students. When it came to figuring out a way to let them know how much I have learned from them over the years, offering a book seemed the right thing to do. I have learned something from each of the books on my shelves. I find some writers engaging, some challenging, some occasionally infuriating, but all salve for an insatiable curiosity. The same is true of my experience with many of my students.

It would have been nice and easy to pack up the books and move them to the new office or donate those I didn’t want anymore to my local library. But I rarely choose to do anything solely because it is nice and easy. And now my former students have another little piece of my heart in print form.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin



Marlene Alves said...

Sir, I found your essay very interesting; however, even more, such a wonderful idea to share with others as our own way of saying goodbye. Thank you for the inspiration; you did good!

Matt C said...

Turn the Page ….