Staff PicksNortheast Library


A Life Apart From The World

Everyone, at some point or another, seeks out some alone timeto get away from the noise, to escape the pressures and stress of everyday life. Solitude has a healing quality that renews, strengthens and fortifies. There are some people that choose a life of solitude for any number of reasons and others that find themselves alone through no choice of their own. The following are some recent and classic accounts of the solitary life.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel   
Finkel’s book is a fascinating portrait of Christopher Knight, who purposely left everything and chose to live as a hermit in the deep woods of Maine. He did so for nearly three decades, surviving by stealing from nearby summer cabins and a summer camp. It is remarkable that Knight did this through all four seasons in northern New England without having contact with another person for all those years. After all that time, Knight was finally discovered, arrested and incarcerated. Michael Finkel, fascinated by Knight’s story, reached out to him in prison, and over a series of visits, unlocked the details of his story.

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France
Peter France, a former BBC employee, spends half a year on the Greek Island of Patmos purposely living a solitary life. In this volume he starts off with a look at the Greek philosophers and their writings on the emergence of the philosophy of the individual. He traces the tradition of solitude from the Christian Desert Fathers and the Russian Startsy(elders) up through the modern era with chapters on the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau, Charles de Foucauld, Thomas Merton and Robert Lax. The only non-Western individual examined is the Indian Ramakrishna. Each chapter provides unique insights into the hermit life.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer’s book and Sean Penn’s subsequent film adaptation of the same title captivated the nation with the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless. Upon graduating from Emory College in Atlanta, McCandless, the son of a middle-class family in Annandale, Va., gave away $25,000 in savings and cut ties with his family. He then embarked upon an adventure across the United States. Krakauer chronicles his interactions with various people along the way. McCandless adopted a vagabond lifestyle and reinvented himself as "Alexander Supertramp." Ultimately, with his fascination of the wilderness, he ventured north to Alaska on the Stampede Trail. He eventually settled in an abandoned bus were he lived off the land foraging and hunting. After a series of missteps, McCandlish died scared and alone. He was discovered 16 weeks later by hunters. Krakauer’s passionate retelling of his story is a great page-turner.

A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland
Author Sara Maitland grew up in a large family in the United Kingdom. Her environment was one of busy noise. In her 40s she found herself living alone and loving the quietude. She explored this newfound love on a deeper level with time spent in the Sinai Desert, the Scottish hills and in a cottage remotely located on the Isle of Skye. As in Peter France’s Hermits, Maitland examines the history of silence in the Western and Eastern religious traditions as well as in mythology and folklore.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
One of the most well known and beloved works of the life alone is transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. At the age of 28, Thoreau left Concord and built himself a cabin in the deep woods of Massachusetts. He lived there for two years practicing a life of self sustainability. The two years spent in the cabin are compressed into one year in the book. While not a big seller in 1862 when it was initially published, its popularity grew posthumously. The work is part memoir, part social experiment and part meditation with the goal of better understanding society through solitude.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The classic work of unintentional solitude is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. First published in 1719, it is considered by some to be the first English novel. The story, as most know, chronicles the adventures of Robinson Crusoe on the high seas with shipwrecks, pirates and enslavement. Later on a subsequent expedition, he ends up shipwrecked and alone on an island where he overcomes despair and loneliness. Salvaging materials from his shipwreck, he builds a shelter and learns to live off the land. He later encounters cannibals and one of their escaped prisoners whom he befriends and names "Friday" for the day that they met. Friday becomes his trusted companion. Years later, he and Friday are rescued by an English ship and return to England. Crusoe discovers that his family believed him to be dead. He then sets about the details of reintegrating into society.