At the end of Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams retells the story of the Sibylline Books in the context of species lost and environmental protection. It is quite powerful, coming as it does, after a series of stories about species on the brink of extinction (the Baiji River Dolphin, one of the species in the book, is now extinct). I won't reproduce the story from the book, exactly, but I do want to retell it in my own way.
A long time ago there was a small, but prosperous town in the middle of a great plain. The town saw plenty of foreigners passing through with exotic wears, stopping on their way from the great cities that surely lay far beyond the horizon. As a prominent way-point, the town found itself never in want, not only of the necessities of life, but of many of the luxuries as well. So one can easily imagine their reaction to the unsightly old hag who strode into the town on a bright autumn afternoon carrying a sack full of a dozen dusty books.
"All the knowledge and wisdom of the world," She said, "Only one sack of gold!" The men and women at the marketplace chuckled at the old woman. A whole sack of gold for twelve dusty books? It didn't matter what was in them, that was an outrageous price! Their own books usually sold for a gold piece each, at best, and that only for the highest quality binding and printing. A trading village was no place to sell books, besides, considering how busy everyone is with commerce all the time; most books were bought for show.
The woman tried to peddle her goods all day, but found it impossible to attract the attention of even the most credulous buyer. "Leave me alone," one would say. "I have plenty of books already," said another. "Obviously you don't know everything, or you would have left already" the more snarky in the town would opine.
Finally, as the sun was setting, the woman approached one of the other vendors and bought a bit of firewood. She dug a small pit, placed six of the books in, along with the wood, and started a fire right in the middle of the marketplace. This attracted the Mayor, who scrammed the woman out of the village, but not before the books had burned to ashes.
Winter came, and the town was hit hard by blizzards lasting well into March. They were a frugal lot, however, and always planned for such a contingency, and so they braved the winter well. Summer brought the normal volume of trade, and the town was back to normal by the next autumn, when the old woman returned again.
"Not you again," the Mayor said as she entered the town. "Are you still selling the same nonsense?"
"If by 'nonsense' you mean all the knowledge and wisdom of the world," she replied, "No. I now only have half of it remaining. I have changed the price, however." At this the townspeople nodded at each other sarcastically. Of course she's changed the price, they thought, because she only has six dusty old books left. "The remaining books are only two sacks of gold!" The woman sat down among the merchants and laid the books out in front of her, waiting for any takers.
"You must be joking," A man said, "You can't charge twice as much for half the merchandise! We are a trading town, well-versed in business and exchange. You can't expect us to buy books of such low quality for a price so high!" The woman merely sat there, and when the day ended without any takers - but with considerably more jeering than in the previous year - she repeated her ritual and burned half the books. The morning after the woman left, a few young people from the town ruffled through the dying embers of the fire, searching for an odd page, but all was ashes once again.
Another year passed, and this was a hard one. Again the winter was long, and harvests around the countryside were poor. The summer trading caravans were less frequent than they had been in decades. In the end, the city managed, as it always had, but there were whispers that another hard winter would spell serious trouble.
When the old woman arrived in autumn, she was expected. The Mayor greeted her personally, "Madame, we would like to look at your books. We will not be able to offer you two sacks of gold right away, but we are ready to form a committee to investigate the worth, and, in a few weeks, we will be able to make a suitable offer."
The old woman looked back at him. "These three remaining books contain a quarter of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world, and I cannot part with them for anything less than four sacks of gold."
"Four sacks of gold is out of the question, madame, but if you would consider our offer..."
The old woman simply shook her head, and proceeded to burn two of the three remaining books, leaving the town to fend for itself for another winter.
When she returned again the following year the town was desperate. Trade had all but ceased, and the granaries were less than half full. The winter was just around the corner, and already it was cold and windy, though the summer had only just ended. The whole town anxiously awaited the old woman, ready to swallow their pride and purchase her remaining book.
The woman entered the town cautiously, holding the book in front of her. "Are you now ready to buy my book. It contains one-twelfth of the knowledge and wisdom of the world, and it is exceedingly valuable. I can only part with it for twelve sacks of gold."
The Mayor looked back, "We had only budgeted for six." The woman started digging her fire-pit. "Now hold on," the Mayor said, "We can give you ten, but we need something to get us through next summer's trading season." The woman kept digging. As she placed the book into the pit, along with a little kindling, the Mayor finally gave in. "You win," he said, "We'll give you twelve. It better be worth it."
"It is," the woman replied. "You should have seen the rest of it."