Vo Phien

 

“What he created – it’s incredible and valuable.”

 

I put this unhappy question to my students: “If you could take only a handful of books to start a new library in a new country, which would you choose?”

To give them some historical perspective, we read brief accounts of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and of the fall of Saigon.

Then we learned about Vo Phien, who worked to save his country’s literary heritage. As his Los Angeles Times obituary describes, he began his mission in the final days of the Vietnam War:

Fearful of what to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries…

His success in doing so is all the more remarkable because for years this was his side gig: by day he was a benefits specialist for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.

Crunching numbers (which he did “with such speed”) was among the vocabulary Vo Phien’s obituary taught us, along with bannedscourrefugeementorprolificdiaspora, and expatriate.

Also, since Vo Phien was his pen name, we all invented ours. (My favorite was Liam Lemon Lime.)

And the books students were most likely to preserve? The Harry Potter series made many lists, as did the Divergent trilogy, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and The Fault in Our Stars. The Day the Crayons Quit also appeared more than once.