Book Reads: The Midnight Library (Matt Haig)

December 24, 2020


What's a more ideal time to contemplate about your life than on the day you were born?

This is what happened to me, quite accidentally, as I started to read this book that I discovered on Goodreads entitled The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Well by just that title alone, the book was already intriguing to me (I dunno but I just like things associated with something that only happens at night, just like The Night Circus). Add up the synopsis below and I was immediately sold with this book (and its Goodreads Best Fiction award is the cherry on top):

"Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?"

*spoiler alert*

Well initially, the feeling of intrigue and positive curiosity about the book went away upon reading the first few chapters of the book. Apparently, the main character named Nora, a woman in her thirties, is in a swirling downward descent to depression. A series of unfortunate events left her jobless. She felt she no longer had a purpose in life. And so at the strike of midnight, she decided to take an overdose of antidepressants and waited for her end to come. Matt Haig is so good with words that I really got fully immersed with Nora's feelings, and I felt all that in her current state. I thought, is this really a good decision to read this book, especially on the day that I am actually (trying) to celebrate my own existence? Well I couldn't put down the book especially at that part of the story, so I headed on. Well guess what, the Universe doesn't make mistakes. This is indeed the perfect book for me to read on my birthday.

When Nora "woke up", she was in a library wherein there were endless shelves of untitled books. And there she met Mrs. Elm, the librarian she had known years back in school (well it's not really her, it's just her mind's interpretation of a person whom she trusted so much). Mrs. Elm explains that Nora is in her Midnight Library, a place between life and death, and all the books there contain the narration of the different versions of her life, how things could have been based on the different decisions she had made, how big or small they were. And I was like, wow.  I would want to read all the books in my version of the Midnight Library. However, as Mrs Elm said it, "those books are not for you to read." I imagine this rule was placed as a caution, because the owner of that library would most likely be stuck forever reading through the books if he/she is free to roam around the library, and would never be satisfied with one book/life, thinking that he/she might be living a better life in another book somewhere in the library.

Mrs. Elm told Nora to think of a decision she made in her life, and if she wanted to live in that life wherein she chose differently. Mrs. Elm would then find that book in the library. The possibilities were endless, but it's all up to Nora to provide the details. As a reader, a lot of contemplation happened to myself, as numerous flashbacks came to me and all the what-ifs of my life emerged again. What if I actually pursued taekwondo? What if I didn't show up in that interview... what would have happened to me? And now here we have Nora, who would actually be able to find out the answer to those what-ifs as she started to look back and choose the alternate options. 

Nora was clueless on where to start, and so Mrs. Elm gave her a heavy book (it's the thickest one in the library) entitled Book of Regrets. And this triggered me a bit (thus that little IG rant) because as Nora read passages in that book, the contents of my own version of the book came streaming down at me. I told myself "No no no, please don't go there." But I tried to endure it, and to just focus on the story. This book is really coaxing me to do some deep self-reflection. For sure, there would be lessons to be earned at the end of this adventure.

At this point forward, I couldn't put the book down. I chose to read this book over playing Genshin Impact during my free time, and if you personally know me, that said a lot on how I was hooked with the story. I was with Nora in every step of her journey in this unique library of hers. Remember, she only had the power to choose a decision, and so every book surprised her with what her life had become because of that different action that she made. I saw her live another version of her life, feel regret, return to the library, and choose another life again. And she undergoes that cycle several times. And each time she returned to the library, her Book of Regrets became thinner. 

There are a LOT of quote-worthy passages from the book, and I listed here (some of) my favorites.

  • Loneliness is a fundamental part of being a human in an essentially meaningless universe. 
  •  The universe tended towards chaos and entropy. That was basic thermodynamics. Maybe it was basic existence too. 
  •  Happy moments can turn into pain, given time. 
  •  You don't go to death. Death comes to you. 
  •  Regrets ignore chronology. They float around. The sequence of these lists changes all the time (this is from when Mrs. Elm explains to Nora the Book of Regrets). Still staring blankly at The Book of Regrets, she wondered if her parents had ever been in love or if they had got married because marriage was something you did at the appropriate time with the nearest available person. A game where you grabbed the first person you could find when the music stopped. She had never wanted to play that game. 
  •  'To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life is already three-parts dead' -Bertrand Russel 
  •  But after Izzy had gone to Australia, things had faded between them until their friendship became just a vapour trail of sporadic Facebook and Instagram likes and emoji-filled birthday messages. (Omg this was so very well-stated. Matt Haig is a genius. This is sadly accurate, but that's how life is... friends come and go). 
  •  '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'. 
  •  '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.' 
  •  Sometimes regrets aren't based on facts at all. Sometimes regrets are just a load of bullshit. 
  •  Sometimes the only way to learn is to live. 
  •  You can choose choices but not outcomes. 
  •  Never underestimate the big importance of small things. 
  •  Stamina is essential to stay focused in a life filled with distraction. 
  •  "Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves." - Henry David Thoreau 
  •  "Human beings were wired to know only a hundred and fifty people, as that was the average size of hunter-gatherer communities" - Roger Dunbar (this is a very interesting read related to this... and guess what, that's around the same number of FB friends I have!
  •  She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. 
  •  "You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life" - Camus 
  •  They say sibling rivalry isn't about siblings, but parents. 
  •  No player should give up if there were pieces still left on the board. 
  •  Excellence is never an accident. Excellent outcomes are the result of ''the wise choice of many alternatives." 
  •  There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms n the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living. 
  •  "Who was that?" 
    "Oh, just someone I knew in another life." (I just had to add this one because it's so witty!!! I would never be able to use that sentence in real life, but this literally true for Nora).  
  •  He was a good person, and good people were rare. 
  •  Never trust someone who is willingly rude to low-paid service staff. 
  •  Fear is when you wander into a cellar and is worried that the door will close shut. Despair is when the door is closed and is locked behind you. 
  •  In becoming everyone, you are becoming no one. 
  •  We only know what we perceive. Everything we experience is ultimately just our perception of it. 
  •  She realized that you could be as honest as possible in life, but people only see the truth if it is close enough to their reality. 
  •  Now she saw the kinds of things she could do when she put herself to work. (hellooo note to self!
  •  Life begins on the other side of despair - Sartre 
  •  While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility. 
  •  We don't have to play every game to know what winning feels like. 
  •  It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from. That the prison wasn't the place, but the perspective.
What a list! It's not that obvious that I really got to like this book, right??? 😅

And there's a lot actually, but I didn't include it here anymore, because it would just be the same as copying the whole book in here, and we know Matt Haig won't like that. 😂

Well here's one more anecdote from the book that really resonated with me. In some lives Nora had tattoos, she noticed. I also have one (in this life lol). One use of my tattoo is my marker that my current consciousness is the real life versus lucid dreaming (very Inception-ish hehe). I've had lucid dreams wherein I saw that I had a bare wrist so that's my sign that I was just actually dreaming.

I couldn't have read this book in the best timing than now. I'm delighted to have I encountered this book during this time of my life, because coincidentally I'm standing at a fork in my road for too long, not really knowing where to go and so I felt stuck for the longest time. In the lives that Nora had, she realized the "deal-breakers" that she have for a life, and what her priorities really were. And she learned to chase her own dreams for herself, and not live the dreams of others for her. In a way through this book, I have also visited my own Midnight Library and have ruminated the events that happened for the past three decades of my life. One life-changing takeaway also that I got the one about regrets. I want to also thin out my book of regrets, because I have unreasonable ones included in the list. 😅

This was really such a great read. Thank you Matt! You deserve all the book awards for this one. And oh, I could see producers picking this up for a film. I will definitely watch that when that happens. 😀

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