Review and highlights: The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Imagine bouncing from life to life, undoing every regret you’ve ever had. In the space between life and death lies an infinite playground; the opportunity to reverse choices, right wrongs, and live “correctly.”

That’s the premise of Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

The main character, Nora Seed, has attempted suicide. Before truly dying, she visits a quantum library of sorts, which houses a limitless number of potential stories of her life. What she—and we—learn is that the regrets that weight down our lives are often built on faulty assumptions and, in choosing differently, we would have triggered second-order effects we could never predict.

Maybe the premise isn’t completely original, but Haig intertwines philosophy and insights in a way that kept me engaged and thinking deeply about my own life.

Midnight Library book quote.png

Three passages that made me think

A good reminder about authenticity—especially that most gossip is envy in disguise:

‘If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love it. Work hard at it. And don’t give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it. Most gossip is envy in disguise. Keep your head down. Keep your stamina. Keep swimming.

“Success” is something we should define for ourselves. There is no one race, no one prize, no real victor:

… what we consider to be the most successful route for us to take, actually isn’t. Because too often our view of success is about some external bullshit idea of achievement – an Olympic medal, the ideal husband, a good salary.

When really success isn’t something you measure, and life isn’t a race you can win. It’s all . . . bollocks, actually.

You don’t have to live multiple lives to live the wrong one. And when we start to find the right one, I believe things get easier. There’s more attracting, and less striving:

Whereas in every other life she had been continually grasping for clues and feeling like she was acting, in this one she increasingly found that the more she relaxed into it, the more things came to her.

Haig’s story is one that will have you considering your own life choices—especially the ones you think you got “wrong.” We can never know what the outcomes of alternate choices would be, and there’s no point in wasting time in this life thinking, worrying, and regretting. Instead, put that energy into making the best choices we can today, rooted in who we are and what we want.

The Midnight Library is true gift in that regard—a chance for us to revisit all our revisiting, make peace with our choices, so we can live the best today we can.

Kindle quotes from The Midnight Library

My favorite ideas and passages from the book.

‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.

‘Regrets ignore chronology. They float around. The sequence of these lists changes all the time.’

She quickly realised they ranged from the minor and quotidian (‘I regret not doing any exercise today’) to the substantial (‘I regret not telling my father I loved him before he died’).

One regret shifted from practically invisible to bold and back again, as if it was flashing on and off, right there as she looked at it. The regret was ‘I regret not yet having children.’ ‘That is a regret that sometimes is and sometimes isn’t,’ explained Mrs Elm, again somehow reading her mind. ‘There are a few of those.’

Bertrand Russell wrote that ‘To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three-parts dead’.

And then quiet again. A quiet that had a presence, that was a force in the air. Weird.

‘Want,’ she told her, in a measured tone, ‘is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem. Maybe there is a life that you really want to live.’

Sometimes regrets aren’t based on fact at all. Sometimes regrets are just . . .’ She searched for the appropriate term and found it. ‘A load of bullshit.’

She wondered how many Dans there were in the world, dreaming of things they would hate if they actually got them.

And how many were pushing other people into their delusional idea of happiness?

that you can choose choices but not outcomes.

It was a good choice. It just wasn’t a desired outcome.’

Maybe in some lives you just float around and expect nothing else and don’t even try to change. Maybe that was most lives.

‘The only way to learn is to live.’

From that moment in that car park she had felt she was really just an extension of the pain in his left knee. A walking wound.

‘The rook is my favourite piece,’ she said. ‘It’s the one that you think you don’t have to watch out for. It is straightforward. You keep your eye on the queen, and the knights, and the bishop, because they are the sneaky ones. But it’s the rook that often gets you. The straightforward is never quite what it seems.’

‘People with stamina aren’t made any differently to anyone else,’ she was saying. ‘The only difference is they have a clear goal in mind, and a determination to get there. Stamina is essential to stay focused in a life filled with distraction.

‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.’

‘Life is strange,’ she said. ‘How we live it all at once. In a straight line. But really that’s not the whole picture. Because life isn’t simply made of the things we do, but the things we don’t do too. And every moment of our life is a . . . kind of turning.’

‘Think about it. Think about how we start off . . . as this set thing. Like the seed of a tree planted in the ground. And then we . . . we grow . . . we grow . . . and at first we are a trunk . . .’

‘But then the tree – the tree that is our life – develops branches. And think of all those branches, departing from the trunk at different heights. And think of all those branches, branching off again, heading in often opposing directions. Think of those branches becoming other branches, and those becoming twigs. And think of the end of each of those twigs, all in different places, having started from the same one. A life is like that, but on a bigger scale. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from our perspective – from everyone’s perspective – it feels like a . . . like a continuum. Each twig has travelled only one journey. But there are still other twigs. And there are also other todays. Other lives that would have been different if you’d taken different directions earlier in your life. This is a tree of life.

what we consider to be the most successful route for us to take, actually isn’t. Because too often our view of success is about some external bullshit idea of achievement – an Olympic medal, the ideal husband, a good salary.

When really success isn’t something you measure, and life isn’t a race you can win. It’s all . . . bollocks, actually .

‘If one advances confidently,’ Thoreau had written in Walden, ‘in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.’ He’d also observed that part of this success was the product of being alone. ‘I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.’

It was currently minus seventeen degrees, and she had nearly been eaten by a polar bear, and yet maybe the problem with her root life had partly been its blandness.

There was an invisible baton of failure her mother had passed down, and Nora had held it for a long time. Maybe that was why she had given up on so many things. Because she had it written in her DNA that she had to fail.

He had grown up with only a mother, as his dad had died of a heart attack when he was two, cruelly hiding somewhere behind his first memories.

She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had ever made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed. She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale. She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free.

am here but I also know I am not here. I am also lying in a hospital in Paris, having an aneurysm. And I am also skydiving in Arizona. And travelling around southern India. And tasting wine in Lyon, and lying on a yacht off the Côte d’Azur.’

‘Science tells us that the “grey zone” between life and death is a mysterious place. There is a singular point at which we are not one thing or another. Or rather we are both. Alive and dead. And in that moment between the two binaries, sometimes, just sometimes, we turn ourselves into a Schrödinger’s cat who may not only be alive or dead but may be every quantum possibility that exists in line with the universal wave function,

Sometimes just to say your own truth out loud is enough to find others like you.’

Gestalt psychology. About how human brains take complex information about the world and simplify it, so that when a human looks at a tree it translates the intricately complex mass of leaves and branches into this thing called ‘tree’. To be a human was to continually dumb the world down into an understandable story that keeps things simple.

Humans are fundamentally limited, generalising creatures, living on auto-pilot, who straighten out curved streets in their minds, which explains why they get lost all the time.

‘It’s like how humans never see the second hand of a clock mid-tick,’

Minds can’t see what they can’t handle.’

There is no rejection, there is only redirection.

Nora began to feel a bit queasy. Was this what fame was like? Like a permanent bittersweet cocktail of worship and assault? It was no wonder so many famous people went off the rails when the rails veered in every direction. It was like being slapped and kissed at the same time.

‘I think 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.

The regrets she had been living with most of her life were wasted ones.

Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go. Which path to commit to without regret.

‘And you acted when it counted. You swam to that bank. You clawed yourself out. You coughed your guts out and had hypothermia but you crossed the river, against incredible odds. You found something inside you.’

Every life she had tried so far since entering the library had really been someone else’s dream. The married life in the pub had been Dan’s dream. The trip to Australia had been Izzy’s dream, and her regret about not going had been a guilt for her best friend more than a sorrow for herself. The dream of her becoming a swimming champion belonged to her father.

‘Exactly, yet physicists believe in parallel universes.’ ‘It’s just where the science leads, isn’t it? Everything in quantum mechanics and string theory all points to there being multiple universes. Many, many universes.’

Whereas in every other life she had been continually grasping for clues and feeling like she was acting, in this one she increasingly found that the more she relaxed into it, the more things came to her.

Never underestimate the big importance of small things, Mrs Elm had said. You must always remember that.