Published by Alfred A. Knopf on March 7, 2017
Pages: 224 (Hardcover)
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In 1986, at the age of twenty, Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods without so much as a fare-thee-well to his family. He lived in a cleverly concealed camp less than a three-minute walk from the nearest cabin near Little North Pond. He stole food, books, gear, and other sundry supplies from the surrounding community, building a rap sheet of over one thousand burglaries. Finally, nearly thirty years after his departure from society, he was caught red-handed and arrested. He had spoken to another person just once during his hermetic life in the woods.
The Stranger in the Woods is one journalist’s effort to make sense of Knight. What drove him to leave behind a comfortable life for a solitary existence in the woods? Why did he steal supplies instead of finding a more ethical alternative? Is he crazy? Disturbed? Dangerous? What did he learn from being alone all those years?
Understanding the actions of someone like Knight is no easy task, especially when, unlike most people in the world, he doesn’t care whether people understand him or not. I think Finkel’s work is fairly impressive in this regard. He interviewed Knight a total of nine times while Knight was in jail awaiting his trial, each time eliciting snippets of insight that give readers a glimpse into the hermit’s inner world.
Of course, less than a dozen one-hour conversations with a man who isn’t inclined to communicate at all is not enough to pad out an entire book. For this, Finkel turns to history and science to better understand the role of hermits in society and the effects of isolation on human psychology and physiology.
Finkel explores the lives of anchorites, shamans, sadhus, hikikomori, and ascetics. He outlines the various reasons people choose to become hermits and how biology (oxytocin and vasopressin levels in particular) can impact a person’s desire for isolation. He also writes about the cost and benefit of a solitary life.'The Stranger in the Woods' Is an Illuminating Look at a Hermetic MindClick To Tweet
Knight is something of an anomaly, even among hermits. Most hermits choose such a lifestyle for either religious reasons or as a form of protest. Knight falls into neither category but cannot fully understand the reasons behind his own compulsion for solitude. He is clearly not insane or mentally ill (though various diagnoses were tossed about during his incarceration–Asperger’s, depression, etc.).
A reviewer for The Guardian argues that Finkel’s account of Knight’s life “tries too hard to give it real significance,” that “the intent seems to be to elevate Knight…into a flawed saint of solitude.” The reviewer also dismisses Knight as an uninteresting character–hardly worth considering next survivalist greats like Thoreau and Chris McCandless.
I profoundly disagree with this wholesale dismissal. Knight is worthy of study precisely because he is so ordinary. Unlike many before him, Knight left society without any desire to discover some profound truth or leave a legacy in writing. He simply wanted to disappear, to be absorbed into the forest until it finally consumed him. How many people want to disappear and be forgotten?
The Stranger in the Woods is well-written, fast-moving, and thoroughly engaging. It questions everything we know about humans as social animals and paints a fascinating, if shadowy, portrait of a man whose sole desire is to be alone.
Have you read The Stranger in the Woods? What do you think?