I have a memory of a story in which the custodians of a large library pleaded with a conqueror to not destroy the books within, which he promised. He kept his promise, but still rendered the library useless by having all the books rewritten into alphabetical order, so there were books just full of the letter A and so on. I'd like to know the name of the library, but since I can't remember where I heard the story it's proving difficult to track down.

I don't even know if it's a myth (in the sense of this Stack), something from more modern literature (sounds like something Iain Banks would have come up with), or an allegory for something like the distinction of data vs information.

Having run out of places to look I thought I'd ask here, and I hope it's not inappropriate. But any pointers would be most welcome.


1 Answer 1


Found it! And it is indeed from Iain M. Banks, in The Player Of Games.

A colonel (Traff) commanding a war was on the brink of defeating a capital city, who surrendered on condition that their library (Urutypaig Library) be preserved. Traff's Emperor insisted that it be destroyed.


...Traff knew that giving your word was a sacred thing; nobody would ever trust him again if he went back on it.

Traff already knew what he was going to do. He solved the problem by shuffling the library, sorting every word in it into alphabetical order and every pixel of every illustration into order of colour, shade and intensity. The original microfiles were wiped and re-recorded with volumes upon volumes of 'the's, 'it's and 'and's; the illustrations were fields of pure colour.

There were riots, of course, but Traff was in control by then, and as he explained to the incensed and - as it turned out, literally - suicidal guardians of the library, and to the Empire's Supreme Court, he had kept his word about not actually destroying or taking as booty a single word, image or file.

Not quite down to the letter as I thought, but pretty close. Should have gone in literature after all, I suppose.


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