In “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” Finkel chronicles Knight’s story, one he calls “bizarre and weird and brilliant and disturbing.” The book draws on the author’s visits with Knight at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility, as well as the history of those who have sought solitude — from Henry David Thoreau (whom Knight disdained) to Tibetan Buddhist nuns. “Extraordinary things happen in solitude,” Finkel said. “Frightening things happen in solitude.”
In a world of easy online connection, the fact of a human body becomes a high-risk encounter, something chaotic and best avoided. Knight, who disappeared long before he had the chance to go online, was perhaps just ahead of the curve. Everyone with a smartphone is, on some abstract level, a hermit themselves, for we burrow into our private worlds and dodge the kind of physical “collisions” that Knight deplored.
I was drawn through these pages in a single sitting – their pull is true and magnetic. By the unsettling conclusion, both hermit and author have wept at the impossibility of the situation: the longing to commune with an unknowable force outside of the rude crowd, the need to connect with something beyond our daily handshakes and trips to the mall. “He was like a refugee from the human race,” writes Finkel.