by Douglas Adams
[From his book Last Chance to See.]
There’s a story I heard when I was young that bothered me because I couldn’t understand it. It was many years before I discovered it to be the story of the Sybilline books. By that time all the details of the story had rewritten themselves in my mind, but the essentials were still the same. After a year of exploring some of the endangered environments of the world, I think I finally understand it.
It concerns an ancient city – it doesn’t matter where it was or what it was called. It was a thriving, prosperous city set in the middle of a large plain. One summer, while people of the city were busy thriving and prospering away, a strange old beggar woman arrived at the gates carrying twelve large books, which she offered to sell to them. She said that the books contained all the knowledge and all the wisdom of the world, and that she would let the city have all twelve of them in return for a single sack of gold.
The people of the city thought this was a very funny idea. They said she obviously had no conception of the value of gold and that probably the best thing was for her to go away again.
This she agreed to do, but first she said that she was going to destroy half of the books in front of them. She built a small bonfire, burnt six of the books of all knowledge and all wisdom in the sight of the people of the city, and then went on her way.
Winter came and went, a hard winter, but the city just managed to flourish through it and then, the following summer, the old woman was back.
“Oh, you again,” said the people of the city. “How’s the knowledge and wisdom going?”
“Six books,” she said, “just six left. Half of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Once again I am offering to sell them to you.”
“Oh yes?” sniggered the people of the city.
“Only the price has changed.”
“Two sacks of gold.”
“Two sacks of gold for the six remaining books of knowledge and wisdom. Take it or leave it.”
“It seems to us,” said the people of the city, “that you can’t be very wise or knowledgeable yourself or you would realise that you can’t just go around quadrupling an already outrageous price in a buyer’s market. If that’s the sort of knowledge and wisdom you’re peddling, then, frankly, you can keep it at any price.”
“Do you want them or not?”
“Very well. I will trouble you for a little firewood.”
She built another bonfire and burnt three of the remaining books in front of them and then set off back across the plain.
That night one or two curious people from the city sneaked out and sifted through the embers to see if they could salvage the odd page or two, but the fire had burnt very thoroughly and the old woman had raked the ashes. There was nothing.
Another hard winter took its toll on the city and they had a little trouble with famine and disease, but trade was good and they were in reasonably good shape again by the following summer when, once again, the old woman appeared.
“You’re early this year,” they said to her.
“Less to carry,” she explained, showing them the three books she was still carrying. “A quarter of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Do you want it?”
“What’s the price?”
“Four sacks of gold.”
“You’re completely mad, old woman. Apart from anything else, our economy’s going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment. Sacks of gold are completely out of the question.”
“Now wait a minute,” said the people of the city, “this isn’t doing anybody any good. We’ve been thinking about all this and we’ve put together a small committee to have a look at these books of yours. Let us evaluate them for a few months, see if they’re worth anything to us, and when you come back next year, perhaps we can put in some kind of a reasonable offer. We are not talking sacks of gold here, though.”
The old woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “Bring me the firewood.”
“It’ll cost you.”
“No matter,” said the woman, with a shrug. “The books will burn quite well by themselves.”
So saying, she set about shredding two of the books into pieces which then burnt easily. She set off swiftly across the plain and left the people of the city to face another year.
She was back in the late spring.
“Just one left,” she said, putting it down on the ground in front of her. “So I was able to bring my own firewood.”
“How much?” said the people of the city.
“Sixteen sacks of gold.”
“We’d only budgeted for eight.”
“Take it or leave it.”
The people of the city went off into a huddle and returned half an hour later.
“Sixteen sacks is all we’ve got left,” they pleaded, “times are hard. You must leave us with something.”
The old woman just hummed to herself as she started to pile the kindling together.
“All right!” they cried at last, opened up the gates of the city, and let out two ox carts , each laden with eight sacks of gold. “But it had better be good.”
“Thank you,” said the old woman, “it is. And you should have seen the rest of it.”
She led the two ox carts away across the plain with her, and left the people of the city to survive as best they could with the one remaining twelfth of all the knowledge and wisdom that had been in the world.