My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight decided to drop everything in his life, park his car as far into the woods as he could get, and walk away from it all. He would live in the woods for twenty-seven years, interacting with another human only once during his stay, robbing from nearby summer homes for food and supplies. The Stranger in the Woods is Michael Finkel’s account of how Knight lived, his thoughts on returning to society in 2013, and musings on solitude and human interaction. It’s a brief but thoughtful analysis of Knight’s decision and how his repeated burglaries of the cabins near his campsite shaped a community for twenty-seven years.
Written with the clear and concise style you could expect from a journalist, The Strange in the Woods presents facts before conjecture, although Finkel does spend some time throughout musing on why Knight might’ve chosen to leave society. Knight’s decision to be entirely alone for nearly three decades is both baffling and intriguing, a sentiment Finkel captures well in this biography. The way people responded to Knight’s actions is just as fascinating, with responses ranging from horror at his burglaries, to disbelief he really even did it, to yearning for a similar life free of social commitment. I think how you read his experiences and decisions will vary based on your own believes, which is part of what makes this story worth reading – it forces you to think about yourself and your relationship to being alone.
As an introvert, walking into the woods and living alone seems almost idyllic – but to do that for twenty-seven years, never once having a meaningful conversation with another human, is taking that idealism to the extreme in a way I can’t even comprehend. It’s easy to say there was something “wrong” with Knight, and while there were likely larger mental health reasons for his decision, I believe much of that sentiment stems from a general fear of loneliness. Finkel touches on this topic, too; he muses on the fact that people are afraid to be alone, that we are always filling our attention and time with distractions to stave off that loneliness. Between Finkel’s interpretations and Knight’s explicit thoughts, this is as much a biography as a book to make you reflect on your own life choices and coping mechanisms for loneliness. Is choosing to be alone really so strange?
At just under 200 pages, The Stranger in the Woods is brief and concise but thoughtful all the same. I’m going through a lot right now in a lot of different ways, and reading this was almost a little therapeutic.