Book Review: “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit”

How’s this for a fun fact: biologists have found that the desire to be alone has genetic roots and can, to some extent, be measured.

The pituitary peptide oxytocin is considered the “master chemical of sociability.” And the hormone vasopressin “may suppress your need for affection.”

So with low levels of the sociability peptide and high levels of the hormone vasopressin, your need or desire for interpersonal relationships tends to be much lower.

This consideration appears about a third of the way through “The Stranger in the Woods,” the book-length version of a 2014 GQ article titled “The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit.”

The book is a chronicle and a consideration of Christopher Knight, the man caught living in the Maine woods, where he had been for TWO DECADES.

As a chronicle, the book recounts his capture by a game warden (the “hermit of North Pond” had been a local legend as he stole food from families’ camps around North Pond) and, more interestingly, weaves into the narrative the interviews and conversations the author had with Knight while he was in jail, awaiting his trial (he had committed thousands of felony B&Es).

As a consideration, the book centers on the question of why Knight decided to walk away from everything and head into the woods, without much gear, without much food, and without much preparation.

There is no simple answer. Knight himself resists romanticizing what he did. He just did it; he just felt like doing it. Knight is no sage, no Merton or Thoreau or Buddha.

So the work is left to the author, Michael Finkel, to poke and prod at possible reasons. Thus the consideration of oxytocin and vasopressin. Thus also brief histories of “hermits” across millennia, and reflections on aloneness, drawing on writings from well known hermits, ascetics, mystics, recluses across the ages.

At points it can feel thin—a litany of quotes without a ton of synthesis by Finkel. And I would read much, much more on the histories and purposes of aloneness in cultures historically and contemporarily, as well as the biology behind the impulse to be alone.

But I recognize those are different books.

This book is a quick read (give yourself a few hours) and a super enjoyable one. It is “nonfiction that reads like fiction” at its best.

Get it here.