The Retirement Cull

There is a certain agrarian rhythm to academic life. You follow the seasons more or less and perform work that is not unlike planting and harvesting. The ground that you cover year after year becomes as familiar as any family farm. You even come to accept that a lot of things are out of your control. Some crops are just going to be better than others. My semester comes to an end next week, which means that the college is moving into a series of annual events: honors convocation, baccalaureate, graduation. The faculty will trot out the academic attire in all its finery and formulaic speeches will be made.

There are other annual traditions that occur at this time of year. One of them I find rather bittersweet. Along about mid-April, invitations will be issued for retirement culls. Departing colleagues may invite you to their office and let you pick through their book case. "Take what you like," they will say. "It saves me from having to move them."

There is an unspoken etiquette involved in the cull. The retiring professor is often in the room as you pick over the bones of his academic career, and it's always a mistake to draw attention to the symbolism of the moment. It is after all a professor's life you are looking at on those shelves. You must also never get greedy and haul off everything in sight. At the same time, it's insulting not to leave with at least one box of books. I remember once going to the office of a professor who was retiring after 45 years. He told me that I could have anything I wanted. I was aware of how much he admired Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, and he had a very handsome illustrated edition. Though it wasn't to my tastes, I knew I could not leave his office without it.

So each April you receive a box of someone's life, find room for it on your own shelves, and wonder what the hell you are going to do with it all when you retire.


Alicia said…
We purchased a home from a widow whose husband had been a buyer for a university book store. Much of his collection remained on the built-in shelves and came with the house. I can't bring myself to get rid of a single one. It has been an experience to learn about this man I never met through his books.

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