Monday, November 27, 2017

Review: The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit – Michael Finkel

The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit – Michael Finkel

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life—why did he leave? What did he learn? As well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

Review: For most of my life, people have called me a hermit, so I decided to read a book about real hermits. I’m way less social than the average person, but compared to Chris Knight, I’m nothing. That dude has some epic hermit skills.

When he was twenty years old, Chris Knight hiked into the Maine woods without telling anyone where he was going. He didn’t even tell his family. Twenty-seven years later, he was arrested after a game warden caught him stealing food from a summer camp. Chris Knight had spent twenty-seven years alone in the woods. In all those years, he’d only spoken out loud once, and he rarely saw other humans. He spent most of his time observing nature and reading stolen books. This book blends Chris’s story with facts about hermits throughout history.

For the most part, I adored The Stranger in the Woods. It spoke to my hermit soul. I could relate to Chris’s struggle to fit in with society and his desire to get away from it. The interviews with Chris are really funny. I love his bluntness. I appreciate that the author didn’t present Chris as a hero. He’s a thief, and he deserves to be punished for burglarizing cabins.

My favorite part of the book is the information about historical hermits. Who knew that antisocial loners were so interesting? The book also explores the psychological reasons why people become hermits. I’m really glad that the author included the “A Note on the Reporting” section because now I want to read all the books about hermits. There’s a huge list of them in that section.

“He left because the world is not made to accommodate people like him.” – The Stranger in the Woods

My only issue with The Stranger in the Woods is that it feels exploitative. The experts quoted in the book believe that Chris Knight may have autism or a mental illness. He definitely doesn’t enjoy interacting with people. He kept telling the author to go away because he didn’t want to be interviewed. The author kept coming back and asking questions. I didn’t like that. Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but I worried that the author’s presence made Chris feel pressured into talking. It didn’t feel right to me.

Still, this is one of the most relatable books I’ve read this year. If you’re a hermit, you should pick yourself up a copy. 

My own hermit camp. I lived with my dog in that camper for several weeks in 2011. We had no running water, electricity, Internet, or cell phone service.

Fun Facts About Hermits

1. Hermits usually become hermits for one of three reasons: to protest society, to practice their religion, or to focus on science or art.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight's journey was to seek it. But life isn't about searching endlessly to find what's missing. It's about learning to live with the missing parts.” – The Stranger in the Woods

2. During the Middle Ages, hermits called “anchorites” spent their whole lives in dark cells attached to the outer walls of churches. People came to the anchorites for wisdom.

3. In eighteenth-century England, it was fashionable for upper-class families to have an eccentric hermit living on their estate. Families put ads for “ornamental hermits” in the newspaper. The hermit’s job was to be weird and entertaining.

4. Silence is good for humans. It lowers stress levels and improves brain function. Long-term isolation is bad for humans. It causes mental illnesses. How much socialization people desire depends on the levels of chemicals in their brains. Some people need a lot of socialization, and others barely need any.

“One's desire to be alone, biologists have found, is partially genetic and to some degree measurable. If you have low levels of the pituitary peptide oxytocin—sometimes called the master chemical of sociability—and high quantities of the hormone vasopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships.” – The Stranger in the Woods

5. Most people would rather get a mild electric shock than spend 15 minutes alone in silence. (What is wrong with you, people?)

“Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less are we able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets.” – The Stranger in the Woods


  1. I loved your review about this unusual book - I hometeach a teenage boy on the autistic spectrum, so I echo your misgivings. It's likely the presence of someone asking him questions was causing him intense mental distress if he is on the spectrum, too:(. Though I also agree - he was clearly causing havoc, given the levels of stress burgled victims experience. Thank you for sharing! I love the pic, by the way... It is fascinating how much people vary in their need for others.

    1. Thanks! In the book, it does seem like the author’s constant badgering causes stress for Chris. It irritated me that Chris kept telling the author to go away, but he wouldn’t go away.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I recall hearing this man's story quite a while ago though I can't recall where. I think I'd have the same sensitivity as you in terms of the lengths the author went through to get the story. The historical aspects sound fascinating.

  3. One of the things that was hardest for me to imagine in this book was just leaving your family without any warning or information. I think a lot of us readers fall somewhere towards the introvert side of things, and your summer hermit camp looks like heaven to me--but for my whole life? No way.

  4. Wow, what a crazy story! I can't imagine just disappearing for 27 years without telling anyone. Obviously the stealing is an issue, but it seems like this man did what he needed to do for himself.

  5. I was looking at this book not too long ago so I am thrilled to see that you read it. I secretly wish I was a hermit at times although I like electricity and the internet. I am going to have to get my hands on this book now that I have read your review.

  6. Wonderful review!! I 100% agree that it felt it incredible exploitative. The author really rubbed me the wrong way, and it ruined the book for me. I wanted more of a story from Christopher's side of things, not some random person analyzing him.

  7. I do appreciate this view, even the criticism. I tried to be as respectful as possible of Mr. Knight, but dang his story was so interesting, his mind worked in such a captivating and wondrous way, that I confess that I was a bit obsessed. But I have left Chris alone since finishing the book, and I'm happy to report that as far as I know, he is living quietly in Maine and is not being disturbed. -- Mike Finkel

  8. I prefer sitting at home reading or watching TV or something rather than go out and interact with people. I'm quite anti-social and I hate crowded places. I wouldn't mind a simpler life and being fully self sufficient without committing the crimes of course...

  9. Now this sounds like an interesting book. We often joke that my little sister or my father are hermit like because of their preference to stay at home. I mean, I'm introverted and like my homebody days but I'm no where near as hermit-like as them. I am glad this could resonate with you in some ways! And I liked the facts about hermits included as well. Especially interested by the one about the three main reasons of hermit-like behaviour.