| About | Facebook | Instagram | Toss a coin to your
witcher blogger | LinkedIn |
Chasing Chapters is a series devoted to reviewing (and quoting excessively from) books I’ve enjoyed or been inspired by, to hopefully give you new recommendations for your reading list.
I first added The Midnight Library by Matt Haig to my reading list when I chanced upon it in a bookstore in New Zealand, back in July last year when I was on my 3-month sabbatical. It was just another rainy winter day in Wellington, and the inviting bookstore looked like a good place to dry off and seek warmth.
The book’s cover and title naturally drew me in: ‘One library. Infinite lives.’
Being a devotee of The Alchemist, my spider senses were tingling and telling me that this book would be equally life-changing (it was). This was its blurb:
Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. 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?
I contemplated buying it, but wasn’t sure if the book would survive another month in my travel backpack, so I made a quick note of it on my phone, only getting around to reading it over the last few days of 2022.
As someone who enjoys going down mental rabbit holes and imagining the ways in which life could have turned out differently with each choice I’ve ever made (like my recent blog post about the multiverse), I found this book extremely cathartic and relatable.
a quick summary
I need to start off with a trigger warning: The protagonist suffers from depression and anxiety, attempting suicide by overdose just a few chapters in, which is how she ends up in the Midnight Library.
Nora (our protagonist) wasn’t always like this. She used to be a promising teen swimmer, but now she’s on antidepressants, has no family (her parents passed, her brother is estranged), is stuck in a dead-end job leading a dead-end life in a dead-end small town in the Middle-of-Nowhere, UK (Bedford, to be exact).
After a particularly bad week and a series of triggering events, she decides to attempt suicide, pops
some a lot of pills and ends up in multiversal limbo in the Midnight Library.
She meets a spirit guide in the form of her high school librarian, and learns that she’s free to hop across alternate realities infinitely, but will die if she loses her desire to live.
So we embark on multiverse-jumping with Nora, and see the 101 other ways her life might have turned out – some of the lives were fascinating, most were average, while others were downright disappointing or tragic.
Spoiler alert, but she doesn’t die in the end. Upon awakening, her epiphany was that she had to make the best of the current life she was in – seizing opportunities as they came along, reconnecting and accepting love from the people she’d drifted apart from, and just giving herself a try.
anxiety, survivor’s guilt & self-acceptance
Depending on your relationship with your past choices and how much regret you carry, this book will either be a lightly introspective read or absolutely crisis-inducing (thankfully, it was the former for me).
It deals with heavy topics like death, depression, anxiety, suicide and substance abuse in a very nuanced and empathetic manner, because the author himself (Matt Haig) drew from his personal experiences with mental illness, when he was on the verge of jumping off a cliff at 24. So yes, this book is very raw and real.
- The power of choice – How do we make the ‘best’ choice? How do we deal with our regrets?
- Philosophy – What makes your life worth living?
- Forgiveness, relationships/familial ties & self-acceptance
One of the most unique and hard-hitting quotes in the book was uttered by Ravi, Nora’s former friend: “I don’t think your problem was stage fright. Or wedding fright. I think your problem was life fright.”
That’s what anxiety feels like. Most circumstances aren’t scary on their own, but in a person with anxiety, it’s very easy to fall into a thinking trap (a negative thought pattern) that clouds our perception and makes us more fearful or avoidant than a ‘regular’ person.
In Nora’s case, her mental health struggles, low self-esteem and unresolved trauma made her too stressed, anxious and emotionally drained to make the best choices for herself. Instead, she lived life solely to please others, leading to an insane buildup of regrets and self-loathing.
Additionally, life dealt her a terrible hand of cards, with setback after setback at work and in her personal life, until one day everything bubbled over and she decided to end it all.
Initially, I felt sad and frustrated at how the protagonist harboured guilt over inane things or happenings that were entirely out of her control, such as her loved ones’ deaths in a parallel universe. I just wanted to reach through the pages and tell her that those were completely random & independent tragedies and that none of it was her fault.
But I recalled interactions over the years with a dear friend whose background parallels Nora’s, and realised that’s exactly how survivor’s guilt manifests. They’ve been conditioned (usually due to childhood trauma, being manipulated by others, etc.) to feel guilt, apologise excessively and beat themselves up over things that regular people wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at.
And no matter how much reassurance you offer them, they are hardwired to feel guilt and engage in people-pleasing behaviours; only they can heal themselves.
Thankfully, after Nora’s journey through the Midnight Library, she learnt to stop living for others’ approval or chasing dreams that weren’t her own. She had discovered a new sense of self, and in it, felt renewed hope in the possibilities of her life.
The moral of the story is that life is about minimising regrets, taking chances, and making the best of whatever we have right now. The kindest gesture we can bestow upon ourselves is self-acceptance (don’t beat yourself up over past choices), and it helps to lean on our loved ones while pushing on ahead in life, because every new day brings the chance to choose differently.
my favourite quotes from The Midnight Library
As always, here’s my favourite
quotes paragraphs from the book, just to give you a taster of Matt Haig’s writing style and the occasionally depressing subject material in this book.
I tried to trim the paragraphs into shorter quotes, but clearly failed. So you’ll just have to deal with these walls of text that may cause an existential crisis*.
*results not guaranteed
1. Let’s start off with something heavy:
She wasn’t made for this life. Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.
Swimmer. Musician. Philosopher. Spouse. Traveller. Glaciologist. Happy. Loved. Nothing. She couldn’t even manage cat owner. Or ‘one-hour-a-week piano tutor’. Or ‘human capable of conversation’.
The tablets weren’t working. She finished the wine. All of it. I miss you; she said into the air, as if the spirits of every person she’d loved were in the room with her.
2. A lesson that more people need to learn
And the thing is 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. And we have all these metrics that we try and reach. When really success isn’t something you measure, and life isn’t a race you can win.
3. What do we say to self-sabotage? Not today hun ~
She knew that staying in Bedford was the worse option. And yet she picked it. Because of some strange predictive homesickness that festered alongside a depression that told her, ultimately, she didn’t deserve to be happy. That she had hurt Dan and that a life of drizzle and depression in her hometown was her punishment, and she hadn’t the will or clarity or, hell, the energy to do anything.
4. The rest is confetti…
Maybe that’s what all lives were, though. Maybe even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same. Acres of disappointment and monotony and hurts and rivalries but with flashes of wonder and beauty. Maybe that was the only meaning that mattered. To be the world, witnessing itself. Maybe it wasn’t the lack of achievements that had made her and her brother’s parents unhappy, maybe it was the expectation to achieve in the first place.
5. There are just paths
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.
In one life, I might be married. In another, I might be working in a shop. I might have said yes to this cute guy who asked me out for a coffee. In another I might be researching glaciers in the Arctic Circle. In another, I might be an Olympic swimming champion. Who knows?
Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.
It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living.
I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.
7. Life is a messy yet beautiful game of chess
There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in 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.
8. YOU ARE ENOUGH!!
What sometimes feels like a trap is actually just a trick of the mind. She didn’t need a vineyard or a Californian sunset to be happy. She didn’t even need a large house and the perfect family. She just needed potential. And she was nothing if not potential. She wondered why she had never seen it before.
9. #noragrets (rmb that misspelled tatt?)
But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.
Will my life be miraculously free from pain, despair, grief, heartbreak, hardship, loneliness, depression? No.
But do I want to live? Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.
So, to throw the question right back at you: If you somehow found yourself in the Midnight Library, would you have chosen to live your current life any differently?
Hope you enjoyed this book review, and I strongly recommend borrowing a copy of The Midnight Library as an introspective read to curl up with on a quiet evening (my rating: 8/10). If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, this recap is worth a quick scroll:
I’ll try to post a book review every month (in addition to my monthly doctoring series), so be sure to follow me on Instagram or like my Facebook page to be updated whenever I post something new!
P.S. This blog is my passion project and self-funded, so if you enjoy my writing and want to contribute some spare change towards my annual WordPress Premium plan, why not make a little donation here? 🙂
| About | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn | Spotify |
If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, doctoring, psychology, random musings), or check out my most read series below:
- the Chasing Dreams series: a series chronicling my thoughts, dreams & changing ideals over the years (since 2018), including burnout, quitting the rat race, migration and trying to find my path in life
- the (not-so-definitive) guide to doctoring: Getting into Med School & FAQs | Surviving your Clinical Years | MBBS Tips | Life as a M1 // M2 // M3 // M4 // M5 during COVID // Life as a Doctor (monthly series) | Chasing Careers series
Leave a Reply