The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

the midnight library

Do you ever wonder what your life could have been like if you’d taken a different path? If you’d just made a different decision in a fleeting moment, where would you have ended up? I do, all the damn time. I’m always overthinking my choices and wondering if I made the ‘right’ one.  

“That was how she had felt most of her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go. Which path to commit to without regret.” 

With all the small, seemingly insignificant decisions we make on a daily basis, our lives have an infinite number of possibilities, and we’ll never know if those alternate lives turn out better or worse than the one we’re living.  

But in The Midnight Library Nora Seed does get to sample those lives, and see what could have been possible for her. 

Synopsis 

Nora is unhappy in her life. She had so much potential – she could have been a musician, or an olympic swimmer – but it seems she just threw it all away for a dead-end job and unfulfilling relationships. So she decides to end it all. And that’s when she finds the Midnight Library. 

Caught in the realm between living and dying, Nora is given a chance to reconsider. Does she really want to die? The library holds millions of books that are parallel versions of Nora’s life, all stemmed from a different decision in the moment, however big or small. 

“‘You see, everyone’s lives could have ended up an infinite number of ways. These books on the shelves are your life, all starting from the same point in time. Right now. Midnight. Tuesday the twenty-eighth of April. But these midnight possibilities aren’t the same. Some are similar, some are very different.’” 

“‘That’s what is here. That’s what your books represent. Every other immediate present and ongoing future you could have had.’” 

If she finds a life she could truly be happy in, she could choose stay in that version of her life, and continue living feeling accomplished and content. Almost like an undo button for all the bad decisions that have led her to where she is.  

“She stepped outside, wondering whether a life could really be judged from just a few minutes after midnight on a Tuesday. Or maybe that was all you needed.”

But what actually makes us happy? 

“‘It’s hard to predict, isn’t it?’ she asked, looking blankly in front of her as she moved a black bishop across the board to take a white pawn. ‘The things that will make us happy.’”  

This book brings to the fore all of the pressures and unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves in our adult lives, in the pursuit of feeling like we have achieved happiness. It reminds us that the things we tend to place so much emphasis on – success, money, material possessions – are not where we will find that happiness.  

One of the most toxic things we all cling to from time to time is regrets. We mull over the things we should have done differently, in the belief that another decsion would have resulted in a better outcome. But we don’t actually know this to be true, and this is something Nora discovers in the Midnight Library.   

“’…it is easy to imagine there are easier paths,’ she said, realising something for the first time. ‘But maybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths’.” 

“Maybe even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same. Acres of disappointment and monotony and hurts and rivalries but with flashes of wonder and beauty. Maybe that was the only meaning that mattered. To be the world, witnessing itself.” 

Our desire to control 

Recognising our tendency to cling to our regrets got me thinking about the idea of control, and striking the balance between ‘fate’ and ‘agency’. On the one hand we like to have the freedom of choice, and to feel in control of our destiny. But that can become overwhelming, if all of a sudden we are solely responsible for not only our success but all of our failures too. I find it interesting how sometimes we see things as a personal endeavour, and sometimes as just fate.  

“‘Well… you can choose choices but not outcomes’” 

Our choices shape who we are

The fact that our choices shape who we are can sometimes be uncomfortable to accept, especially if we’ve made some ‘bad’ choices! But The Midnight Library is a reminder that there is awe in that; who we are, and what has determined who we are, is remarkable in itself and we should not be ashamed of the choices we have made. Instead we should continue to strive and be inspired by our potential to grow.  

In this sense this reminds me a little bit of Expectation by Anna Hope – how we constantly scrutinise our lives based on what we thought we would have achieved at a particular time, and feel disappointed if things haven’t turned out how we imagined.  

Yes, maybe there are other versions of our lives where things could have turned out ‘better’. But in reality, there is no Midnight Library; you can’t go back and choose differently. But you can embrace this life, however messy and jumbled it may be. 

“Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.” 

“It was nothing but trees and traffic and mediocre architecture, but it was also everything. It was life.” 

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