What if Your Life Story Sat on a Shelf?

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig shows us that while ‘the perfect life’ might not exist, it may still be worth living.

Over the late summer, I listened to delightful little audiobook by Matt Haig called The Midnight Library. It was buoyant, witty, and full of whimsy, which I found rather impressive for a novel whose protagonist’s primary concern is ending her life. Normally I prefer to read physical books given the choice, but I’m a big fan of audiobooks for long car rides or when I’m out for a walk with my dog. If read by an engaging narrator, it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience, often immensely elevating the story for me. The Midnight Library just happened to narrated by none other than the charming Carey Mulligan, and thus, the choice was obvious. Spoiler alert: her performance does not disappoint.

This novel, while not perfect, played out like a movie in my mind, and because I could easily visualize the story, it’s stayed with me. Even now, six months after finishing it, it’s earned a permanent space in my memory. When a story has such a lasting effect, I like to explore the why, and this month seemed like the perfect time for that because… We’ve officially entered March, and with a new month comes a new theme! This month’s theme is luck, which seems a fitting lens through which to explore The Midnight Library.

At very start of the book, we meet Nora Seed, a young woman who has given up on herself after a series of events—a failed engagement, a falling out with her brother, losing a job (which she didn’t really care much about in the first place), and indirectly killing her cat, among a laundry list of other regrets—causes her to spiral into a fatally depressive episode. However, despite this dark beginning, what follows is a series of vignettes that teach Nora a valuable lesson about being alive—mainly, that she wants to.

Nora overdoses on her antidepressant medication one night and, as we’d expect, her world goes dark. However, we soon learn she’s not dead. Instead, she finds herself in a library complemented naturally by a librarian named Mrs. Elm, who was in fact Nora’s primary school librarian. This little detail reminds us we’ve entered a fantasy of Nora’s creation. Here, Mrs. Elm explains the nature of the library, that inside each book lies an alternate version of Nora’s life, and looking around at the rows of endless shelves filled with books, she quickly learns these alternate lives are infinite. Mrs. Elm also introduces her to The Book of Regrets, which chronicles everything Nora might have done in her life, but didn’t. It includes things like “not going to Australia with Izzy” (her best friend), “not pursuing swimming,” and “not studying to be a glaciologist,” among others. The appearance of The Book of Regrets serves to move the narrative along when Mrs. Elm asks Nora, clearly not satisfied with the life she’s just attempted to end, to “choose another” and she can’t manage to pick one.

I really enjoyed the concept of the place where you go after you die being a library dedicated to you. As a lover of books, this imagery was quite appealing. I liked that it was a sort of purgatory in the sense that nothing was final yet for Nora; instead, she was in between worlds. Having an in-between-life-and-death realm personalized and devoted all to one person felt indulgent, but in the best way possible. To imagine that a place like this exists for every human is such fun and so different from how most other versions of the afterlife are conceived. Later on in the story, Nora meets another “slider,” a term used to refer to people who can slide in and out of lives, and he tells her that his “library” is a video store, inside which endless movies of his life exist for his viewing. I appreciated that Haig presented this concept as something that, again, materializes differently for different people. Where Nora loved spending time in libraries and around books as a child, this other character was partial to movies, and the rental store becomes his library.

Throughout the novel, as you might imagine, Nora “tries on” different versions of her life. She sees firsthand what it would have been like if she’d married Dan (her ex who proposed) and opened a pub in the countryside with him. She goes to Australia to see what adventures she and Izzy would have had. Having pursued music in one life, she becomes the lead singer of an internationally known rock band and experiences fame, touring, and even dating a celebrity. She tries on thousands of lives, all under the premise that if she becomes in any way dissatisfied during her time in one, she will disappear from that life immediately and reappear in the library for another go, presumably until she finds the life for which she’s most suited. Oh, and she’ll never be able to return to that particular life ever again. That book will shut, so to speak. This was all easy enough for me to accept, but what I never fully came to grasp was what exactly Nora wants.

This was the only real problem I had with the book. I found it hard to care about Nora at times because her own motivations were never explicitly stated. After a while, it felt like riding around on a merry-go-round of disappointment with Nora, on which she might never get off. During each new life she experienced, it wasn’t clear what she wanted, only what she didn’t. That too, may have been easy to accept if by the end, she came to an unmistakable truth about what she wanted from life, but that isn’t the case, unfortunately. What she realizes is that she doesn’t want to end her life, but this feels too broad a revelation having been through everything she has. Apparently for Nora, the possibility of what could be is greater than not being at all, but I wanted more from this otherwise charming novel.

At any rate, luck, depending how you look at it, runs rampant in The Midnight Library. On the one hand, what a pure streak of luck to be suddenly able to experience endless versions of your life, while being quietly able to disappear and retreat to the safety of your original life without consequence if you feel at any time let down. On the other, would experiencing multiple lives in this way, desensitize you to your own humanity over time? I’m recalling Andy Samberg’s character in Palm Springs here, simply existing without really living in a perpetual state of apathy. If you don’t like a life, no harm, no foul. There’s another just around the corner.

Living life in this way would be a superpower, but what would keep you invested in one life when you knew something else, something better—perfect even—was waiting for you in another? You’d never be fully present if you thought the present could always be improved. Like all superpower stories, this good fortune would become both a gift and a curse. I’d say that the person who ends up luckiest of all in this scenario is the one who can be fully present in the present, because they have all the power. When Nora chooses to live, she chooses not to dwell trapped in a cycle of what could have been in favor of a life where she controls her destiny. Being present is something we all struggle with because we’re all either thinking about something that happened in the past or looking ahead to the future, so to me, the luckiest people of all—the ones with the true superpower—are those who can live in the now, as it seems like such an inconceivable place to find.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Midnight Library. If you’ve read the book and agree or disagree with my take, let‘s chat in the comments below!

Just another movie-obsessed writer with a lot of opinions.