The Midnight Library – a review

by Jeff Cann

I sent Matt Haig a tweet. What are you, like thirty? How is it that you know so much about life? He’s not thirty, he’s forty-seven, but this was years ago, when I still used Twitter when I read his book The Humans. Last night I closed the cover on Haig’s book The Midnight Library. Maybe not as insightful as The Humans, but pretty impressive. Of course, he’s pushing fifty now. His age seems more appropriate for his storytelling.

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Caution: This article contains spoilers for The Midnight Library.

The first time I tried to read The Midnight Library, I failed. Or maybe I bailed. Whatever. I got a bit beyond the first chapter and I shook my head. “I think this book is going to depress me.” It left me feeling uncomfortable. It left a pit in my stomach.

“Then don’t read it.” My wife gets frustrated when I read a book that sets me off. I dive in, every night for a week, maybe more. An hour later, I mope around the house while getting ready for bed: “Wow, that book really upset me. I hope I can get to sleep.” The trigger in The Midnight Library was all the talk of regrets. After Nora, the protagonist, dies by suicide, she faces her lifetime of regrets. Literally. A librarian named Mrs. Elm hands Nora a book of all her regrets, and she makes Nora read it from beginning to end.

For years, I had no regrets. That’s what I always said. “I have no regrets.”

I just couldn’t see them. I lacked the introspection to see where I might have failed, what I might have lost. I never sat still long enough to ponder my life.  Becoming a writer changed that. I spent hours each week thinking, analyzing myself and the world around me. And fatherhood—sitting in the dark bottle-feeding babies at three a.m. offers ample time to get to know yourself better. My list of regrets blossomed and grew.

Now, in a better mental state than when I last tried to read The Midnight Library, I plowed in and loved it. After Nora read her book of regrets, Mrs. Elm encourages her to try one of her ‘other’ lives. Mrs. Elm’s library is filled with thousands of books, each one containing a different version of Nora’s life. One multiverse theory is that at every decision point, a second universe begins. In this one, I fed the cats. In that one, I forgot. The universes spiral away from one another with differences, small at first, but over time, a whole new plot forms. All Nora needs to do is open a book to experience a different life.

Nora, an amazing swimmer, decided in high school to quit the swim team. “Go check out this other life,” Mrs. Elm says, “the one where you didn’t quit.” Nora tries out countless lives. In some, she’s wildly successful; in others, she’s a slacker. In none of her lives is she any happier. And like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, she gets to see how her actions changed the people around her. In this life, her brother’s dead. In that life, it’s her mother who died. And this life in Australia, her best friend is killed in a car crash while visiting Nora. Every action causes a reaction. 

It’s a heady book. Matt Haig again proves he’s smarter than everyone else by showing us what a waste of time regret is. Possibly you missed out on something big; possibly, you narrowly escaped disaster. Probably both at once. It doesn’t matter. Live the life you’re living. We already learned this in the Wizard of Oz. There’s no place like home.

If I have any complaints about the book, it’s that I knew the ending, the moral, halfway into the story. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, because I got to the same conclusion on my own, I think it reinforced what Haig was trying to tell me.

Look, I’ve already told you the plot of The Midnight Library, but I encourage you to read it anyway. I see reading this book as a turning point in my life, a before and after moment. It completely changed my perception of regret. Before, I felt helpless; now, I feel hope.

I wish I didn’t abandon Twitter all those years ago (a regret easily remedied); I’d like to reach out to Matt Haig again and send him a new message, this time without an undertone of hostility. The guy truly understands life. I’m thankful he’s sharing what he knows with the rest of us. 

The shelves at Adams County Library System are jammed with other lives to explore. Come select a book from our shelves. You won’t regret it. Which books do you see as life-changers? Send me an email and let me know: jeffc@adamslibrary.org.

Jeff Cann is Finance Director for the Adams County Library System.

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