There are an infinite amount of lives we can live because every decision we make changes the way we live life. The Midnight Library, written by Matt Haig, explores the life of a woman who can travel between lives, allowing her to see the outcome of different ways of living. Unlike everyone else, the main character in The Midnight Library, Nora, can see what happens if she makes – or does not make – a particular decision, without any ramifications.
Nora was afforded this possibility on the cusp of death, as she had attempted to commit suicide. Her life was not what she thought it should be: she lost her job in a music store and taught a kid how to play the piano on the side. She owned a cat but the cat died, presumably in a road accident. Nora struggled with depression and could not see a path forward. After she took too much of her medication, she arrived at a library where time was frozen, the Midnight Library.
When Nora first arrives, she firmly believes that she wants to die: there is nothing else in her life that she wants to return to. But there is one person who is there to help Nora see what her life could be like: the librarian. The librarian, who is her old school librarian, Mrs. Elm, knew where all the books were in the library. She was a guide, there to help Nora. She gave Nora one assignment as soon as she arrived: to open the Book of Regrets.
This book overwhelmed Nora, making her remember all of the things she had regretted in her life. Mrs. Elm then said she could see how her lives would turn out if she had made different decisions. Each book on the shelves, when opened, would take Nora into a new life. She could live any life. She was allowed to see what her life would be like if she had pursued swimming, which was recognised as one of her talents when she was young. She found out what it would be like if she married someone with whom she felt comfortable and helped him achieve his dream of owning a country club. She became a glaciologist in one life.
Nora could only stay in a life if she really wanted to stay there. Otherwise, she would be taken back to the library, offered the choice of taking another book. This meant that if one life did not work out she could try another one. And she did, many times. Though the start of the book focused specifically on a few lives, later it was revealed she had tried out many more lives, trying to find the right one.
Along the way, Nora learned a few lessons. She learned that the small things in life can add up. In one life, the person who she taught to play the piano was a criminal. Apparently the piano – for which the kid had a great talent playing – was keeping him out of trouble and away from the wrong crowd. In that life, Nora had everything: a great job teaching philosophy, which she loved, and writing a book about Henry David Thoreau, her favourite philosopher. She had a husband and a dog and a child. But she saw that someone in her real life – her so-called “root life,” where she came from – could lose everything. Teaching piano had a big impact, even if she felt like it was not what she was meant to be doing.
Nora learned that big successes do not always translate to happiness. She lived the life of an Olympian – where she had stuck with swimming instead of giving it up after the pressure started getting to her – and did not feel like herself. She was giving speeches and had played on Team GB but the life was not right for her. She lived the life of a rockstar, another ambition, and still felt lacking. She had not found love; she just had a former relationship with someone she liked on television. She did not find happiness in material wealth or success or other people’s view of how she should live her life.
Through each journey, Nora slowly realised she did not want to die. She wanted to live and there were so many possibilities available. While many chances had passed – she probably would not become an Olympic swimmer – there was still so much she could do. In her real life, she had earned everything she had, unlike in the lives in which she “slid” into in the Midnight Library. So she knew that the lives in the library could not be her life, but she wanted to go back and live one that made her feel good, knowing this was now possible.
The Midnight Library explores the theme of regret, making the reader question what regrets they have and whether they would make different decisions. Regret is not seen as a perpetual source of despair, however; it is seen as something that exists in the past. The decisions we make in the moment directly affect our future – what we do and do not do are equally important. So, while we may have missed one chance, there are other chances to live differently. This book also explores the theme of relationships, as Nora realises how important her family is to her. In the life where her brother was dead, Joe, she felt lost.
The Midnight Library was an excellent read, providing both entertainment and many opportunities for contemplation. The moral of the story, in sum, seems to be that there are opportunities to take a different path. And if you subscribe to the theory of quantum physics in which multiple universes exist, mentioned in this book, then I think you will especially enjoy this book. Interestingly, this book reminded me of when I read some philosophy last year. I never did finish Walden, a book mentioned in The Midnight Library, although I have purchased the book and plan to revisit it.