Life is all about choices, and regrets. They shouldn’t be, but everyone has at least one regret they wished they could’ve done something about. On our deathbeds, we tend to look back on all we’ve missed and it can be pretty depressing. But what if you didn’t have to look back and wish? What if you were able to see those hypothetical lives played out? What if they didn’t have the effect you thought they might?
That’s the beautiful parable Matt Haig, internationally bestselling author of Reasons to Stay Alive, The Humans, and How to Stop Time, presents us with in The Midnight Library.
Nora Seed lives a depressing life in Bedford, UK. She’s been let go from her job at the music store, teaches one student piano on the side, single, and feels like no one needs her at all. Her brother visits a mutual friend and their former bandmate but doesn’t stop in to see her. She runs into old primary school mates who have gone on to do much better things. Even her 84-year old neighbor, whom she’d been collecting medication for, tells her she’s not needed anymore. And on top of everything, her cat dies outside on the street.
All Nora sees is doom and gloom because she feels superfluous to the world. When she opens her social media, there aren’t any messages, comments, new followers, or friend requests. She put it best, “She was antimatter, with added self-pity”. And there are times when people experience this, believing that they’re nothing but a burden so why bother continue? Which is exactly what she thinks when she decides to take her own life.
But instead of dying, Nora wakes up between life and death in a mysterious library exactly at the midnight hour. Various shades of green books line shelves so thin they appear invisible. Even her old school librarian turns up to guide her through the system. Among the volumes there is one giant grey book which is filled with all the regrets Nora has ever had about her life, with the green ones representing all the off-shoots of lives she could have led. Whenever she wants to explore one of them, all she has to do is decide.
How beautiful would it be to live life in such a way where you could explore a path you once believed wouldn’t work out because of some reason or another? But here, between life and death, Nora can choose to go down any of them, to live out the life of her dreams and stay there, alive and well. When her old librarian asks her what she would like to explore, Nora goes down the list of untaken chances: marrying her ex-boyfriend, becoming an Olympic champion swimmer, continuing with her band, The Labyrinths, becoming a glaciologist. Everything is possible in the library.
The question in the end is: which life would make her the happiest? I love the way Haig presents this book where regrets occupy a large part of people’s lives and yet, if we were somehow able to explore any of these alternative lives, would we still be happy in the end? And what would that “end” look like, anyway?
Matt Haig himself has been plagued by anxieties and even wrestled with suicidal thoughts before. On a podcast I remember him saying that “he’s not living for the person he was, but living for all the future persons he can be.” For anyone grappling with their own mental health demons, especially during this year of years, this sentiment could not be more pertinent. If anything, we can all take some small comfort knowing that our regrets don’t necessarily mean anything; that even if we had taken these untaken paths, we may not have been any happier as a result.
Many of us believe that there is nothing beyond the despair that plagues our lives. But as Sartre famously once said, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” We can hit rock bottom and think there’s nothing left for us, but we forget that there’s always the choice of changing trajectory at any moment. The Midnight Library hits on the idea that regret may not be the only thing that keeps us from living our lives; we stand in our own way burdened by thoughts of ‘what if’. But as the librarian says: sometimes the only way to learn is to live.