cover image THE ROAD TO DELPHI: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles

THE ROAD TO DELPHI: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles

, . . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-374-52610-8

Finding that oracles present prediction seekers with equivocations, ambiguities and "amphibologies," Princeton English professor Wood (The Magician's Doubts) guides those looking for the future through the forms oracles have taken. Reading more like transcribed lectures than a composed text, the book hops, skips and sometimes trudges through oracular moments in history, literature, theater and film. Stops include Shakespeare; the Oxford English Dictionary; Wittgenstein; Nietzsche; etymology, anthropology; doctors; economic advisers; Macbeth's encounter with three oracles and Oedipus's experience with the Delphic one—via Sophocles' and Euripides' plays, Stravinsky's opera, Passolini's movie, Freud's analysis and Gjertrud Schnackenberg's poetry. Then come sibyls, the oracle's "most famous cousins," but with Milton's poetry we arrive at "the sudden and total death of oracles at the birth of Christ"—though the oracular lives on in The Matrix and elsewhere. Throughout, Wood, who reviews regularly for the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, plays professorial cat-and-mouse: "The idiom makes perfect sense, and I have just used it six times, I hope unobtrusively." (Question implied—can you find it?) Sometimes he cozies up: "No success like failure, as Bob Dylan used to moan, and these paradoxes are apt to make your head spin." As might Wood's multiple references and tepid games, if they were not designed to remind us that "our choices are choices, and that not even an oracle can take this freedom from us." (Aug.)