I don’t know who is responsible for the terrible title, but I found reading this book to be as refreshing as drinking a cool glass of water. Finkel’s narrative led me to consider why I seek solitude at times. I felt a solidarity with an author who admits feeling compelled to tell stories, even if it means diving into conflict-rich material. And it provided some good general life advice.
I had just closed the cover on Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and headed up to my bedroom bookshelf to search for an antidote for the dissatisfaction I felt -- both from it and Bad Blood, two books I read back to back that deal with investigative journalism. What to read next?
For starters, compared to the organization of Orlean’s halting chapters, Finkel’s thoughts and leads roll right into the next, and I could follow his natural path from his home in Montana to Knight’s camp in Maine. I could visualize him retracing Knight’s steps and easily accept the chapters when the camera zooms out so Finkel can explore the meaning of solitude and silence across cultures and throughout history.
Unlike in Bad Blood in which author John Carreyrou doesn’t appear until deep in the narrative, Finkel, introduces himself early in the text, providing a descriptive yet concise personal bio that explains why he was interested in this story. He mentions understanding the need for retreat, having participated in a silent retreat in India after feeling overwhelmed from having three children in three years. He admits that the trip to India felt a little too extreme, too overwhelming in its otherness to be relaxing for him. Reading his experience prompted me to reflect on my own recent retreats and what I found so restorative about them (which I wrote about in My own there and back again and in Mother/Daughter Retreat 2019). Anytime I can see myself in a book, I enjoy it more.
I loved Finkel’s analysis of why we head to the hills. He describes three kinds of seekers: protesters (“whose primary reason for leaving is hatred of what the world has become” 79), pilgrims (for “the connection between seclusion and spiritual awakening” 80), and pursuers (who “seek alone time for artistic freedom, scientific insight, or deeper self-understanding” 82). Finkel needed a reboot after having three kids in three years. I head to nature for connection with God. But what about Knight? He didn’t fit into any category. Knight told Finkel that he just wanted to get lost.
Finkel describes the day Knight walked away from civilization and naturally transitions to writing about Knight’s childhood and family, adding details that probe his personality and lead into a discussion of the psychology of the type of person who seeks solitude over interaction with others. He also discusses the opposite personalities, those for whom solitude is nearly torturous. Strangely enough, he quotes a study I first read about in Tish Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary, the study from the University of Virginia that found that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women when placed in a room alone for fifteen minutes ended up administering themselves an electric shock rather than be forced to not interact with the world.
Knight, on the other hand, is an extreme case in the other direction. When Finkel describes the day Knight walked away from civilization, he also mentions how much Knight liked driving. After returning to Maine from a solo roadtrip to Florida, Knight drove to the very end of a tiny road in Maine and ditched his car there.
If Knight would allow me one follow up question it would be: Why didn’t you just become a trucker? Surely that could satisfy your need to be alone, to drive, and to listen to endless media and stories as he did during his time in his camp. But maybe he would point out that interstate 80 is a long way from the woods. It seems that, for Knight, the woods held a gravitational pull that he could not shake.
When Knight is finally caught, he is forced to return to civilization to work off his crimes. Finkel asks him, would he have done it differently knowing how this would turn out?
Knight comments, referring to himself, “The brilliant man wishes he weren’t so stupid to do illegal things to find contentment.” (183)
Finkel records how he is one more contributor in the process of preventing Knight from having the life he wants.
“Knight told me that he planned to stay out there forever. He was willing to die in his camp, the spot where he was most content….He wasn’t going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience. Nothing would ever be written about him. He would simply vanish, and no one on this teeming planet would notice. His end wouldn’t create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life, of utter perfection.” (190-1)
So...the reader wonders, should Finkel have bothered Knight at all? Should he have written this story? In reference to the writing I’ve created recently, I ask myself that question all the time.
Should I write this?
In the end, Knight gave his permission, perhaps understanding that as the woods drew him, a similar force compels the writer to write.
On the day Knight ditched his car, Finkel mentions that the Chernobyl disaster had just occurred. I find it fascinating that I happened to read two books this same summer that describe events occurring simultaneously to this global-newsworthy event in 1986. With all of Finkel and Knight’s discussion of books and media throughout their interviews, neither mentions the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. Michael Finkel, like Susan Orlean with The Library Book, gives new life to a human interest story that may otherwise have been left buried deep in a newspaper and only partially told in the first place.
Read Knight’s story through Finkel’s eyes. Consider the role of solitude in our lives and how each of us either seeks or runs from its cocoon. And wherever your preference falls on that spectrum, enjoy this glimpse into an extreme case, a chance to learn about a type of person who otherwise would be lost to this world.
And since hermits have a sage reputation, let me leave you with this hermit’s ultimate life advice -- wisdom built on twenty-seven years of introspective experience, which coincidentally also echoes Warren’s advice in her chapter on bedtime. This is an expression that Finkel has to work hard to winkle out of him since Knight admits “silence doesn’t translate into words” (142).
The only advice Knight can truly offer is this:
“Get enough sleep” (148).
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.