A lively, vivid, and moving history of hermits, religious and secular, and the instincts that drove them to embrace solitude. France (The Rape of Egypt, not reviewed), deeply attracted to the solitary life himself, began his investigation because he wondered ""if solitude confers insights not available to society."" He traces the origins of a belief in isolation as part of a meditative life to China in the sixth century B.c., when the newly emergent faith of Taoism taught that ""it is by withdrawing rather than by asserting ourselves, through retreat rather than pursuit . . . that we acquire wisdom."" This belief was similar to the ideas of the Desert Fathers, devout Christians who, in the centuries immediately after the rise of that faith, retreated to harsh landscapes well away from society, where they could wrestle with the meaning of their faith and the stubborn appeals of the flesh. France devotes a chapter to the Russian startsy, revered spiritual figures who spent years apart from society in an attempt to attain serenity--but who then often rejoined society to share what they had learned of the deeper instincts of faith. There are studies of, among others, Henry David Thoreau, the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, and Thomas Merton, whose writings offer a contemporary insight into ""the nature of solitude, its risks and its benefits."" The book concludes with a chapter on the poet Robert Lax, who has lived a largely solitary, reflective life on the Greek island of Patmos for four decades. Writing in a prose of great clarity, and drawing heavily on the precise, powerful reflections of solitaries and religious hermits, France offers a succinct survey of the forces that have drieven men and women to separate themselves from society to pursue their faith, and argues persuasively that solitude still can, in our relentlessly crowded, anxious, hustling age, offer unique spiritual benefits and insights.