‘The Midnight Library’ By Matt Haig: How many lives do you need in order to learn how to live?

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I bought this book because I was incited by the debates about it among the literary groups I am part of. Today I recommend the book to you, my literary friends who are following my reviews: the book published by Nemira Publishing House in 2020, and which, for sure, will make you wonder – “The Midnight Library”.

About the author

Matt Haig is a contemporary British author and journalist, born in 1975. The literary genre approached is fiction and non-fiction for children and adults, his books being translated into over 40 languages. He studied History and English at the University of Hull. As an author of books for children and adolescents, he won the Blue Peter Book Award, the Smarties Book Prize and he was three times on the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal. His memoir – ”Reasons to Stay Alive” – was a number one bestseller, staying in the British top ten for 46 weeks. Matt Haig has many books screened / being screened at the moment. Among the adult books, the most successful are as follows: “Reasons to Stay Alive”, “The Midnight Library”, “How to Stop Time”, “The Humans”, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”.

About the book

“The Midnight Library”. One Library. Infinite Lives. –This is how the reader is greeted by the book, from the first cover.

This mystical library, this “purgatory”, this “intermediate realm”, this “simplified version of the truth” is defined rather by what it is NOT, leaving the reader to imagine what it can be:

“It is not life. It is not death. It is not the real world in the conventional sense of the word. But it’s not a dream either. It’s neither of those.”

For me, the library is the metaphor created by Matt Haig for man’s own consciousness. The path taken by the author is not an untrodden one and the writing is not one of great depth (from this point of view, I found similarities with Paolo Coelho’s style, referring to the easy to like and easy to understand way in which he approaches spiritual and philosophical themes). But it is not excluded that the author deliberately chose this style, wanting to emphasize that things are simple and that only the tireless mind of man in search of the meaning of life complicates them.

The narration is told in the third person and it is based a lot on dialogue, which makes the book easy to follow, even on a relaxing weekend day.

“The Midnight Library” brings nothing new, but it reminds you to ask yourself questions you haven’t asked in a long time or, perhaps, never: what regrets do I have?; what would have happened if I had chosen something else?; what does “perfect life” mean to me, in which to live in harmony with myself and those around me?; am I afraid of living my life?; do I know and love myself as I am?; did I forget to live?

All these are questions to which Nora, a 35-year-old woman who arrived at the Library, will have to find answers, in order to find her emotional balance and to live her life. In search of answers, she will fight with feelings of self-pity, of self-blame, she will have to forgive herself and accept her decisions.

And you will also wonder, my dear reader, if the feeling of guilt acquired after a failure does not haunt you, rather than the feeling of defeat related to the failure.

In this note, Matt Haig points out the common mistake of associating success with extrinsic accomplishments (such as a certain social status, or a family according to a certain pattern, a good salary, or a beautiful home), urging introspection: in order to find success and the path to it, we must look inside us and follow our own dreams (and not the dreams that others – society, parents, friends, lovers etc. – have instilled in us). But for that we must, first of all, know ourselves very well and love ourselves. The steps towards this desideratum involve acceptance and self-forgiveness, acceptance of mistakes, of physical and emotional imperfections, of failures, in fact… of everything that makes us unique!

The author emphasizes self-knowledge, but also the knowledge of the world around us, as foundations of realistic expectations – from ourselves and, respectively, from those around us. Unrealistic expectations, invariably, lead to unhappiness.

I think that Nora’s epiphany about the desire to live and the fact that altruistic gestures animate her and make her feel fulfilled, could create more emotion for me. Still, the author managed to make me meditate on the intensity with which I live and that is not a small thing.

I appreciated the philosophical references nicely inserted in the context and I mention that I really like the books which help me update my reading list. This time, I added to the list Camus, “Walden” by Thoreau and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.

The author also debates the theme of loneliness, emphasizing two types of loneliness: the destructive loneliness and the necessary, beneficial loneliness, putting the latter one at the base of a connection with the innerself and, by extension, with peers and nature. It is mentioned, in passing, the theme that has already become the leitmotif of contemporary literature – the paradox of loneliness in the age of communication.

The novel develops starting from Nora’s choices throughout her life, remembering the metaphor of the tree that branches according to these choices. Both themes are amply exposed and uniquely nuanced in Raluca Modreanu’s book – “The Journal of a German Doctor during WWIIl”, a book that I recommend, once again. Review, here ‘The Journal Of A German Doctor During WWII’ By Raluca Modreanu: Choices And Destiny (wixsite.com). In addition, the regrets involved by the choices considered as being wrong by Nora, have an important role in the evolution of the character. Matt Haig introduces us to quantum physics, discussing the possibility of multiple lives through the theory of parallel universes argued by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

In this context and analyzing the book from a stylistic point of view, I really liked the way the author used the metaphor of the game of chess to exemplify the idea of ​​multiple possibilities: “There are more possible iterations of chess games than there are atoms in the observable universe. (…) And there is not a single correct way to play, but several. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything.”

Finally, I bring up a topic I talked about recently, in a review of a book signed by Alice Munro – “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”: the predisposition to idealize the lives one’s imagined, in the hypothesis of making different decisions, not realizing (or ignoring) the fact that each life has its own dose of unhappiness, sadness, its own failures, its own trials. Alice Munro said: “that other life simply [would have involved] another kind of search, having its own traps and successes”.

That’s why I conclude that the “The Midnight Library” is an ode to the present, a “Carpe diem” exhortation that sounds so beautiful:

”We just have to close our eyes and enjoy the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song while it’s being sung.”

I, here and now, can be happy. How many lives do we need to understand this? If you want to see how many lives Nora needed to undesrtand it, sit comfortably in an armchair, sipping from a glass of white wine, and fly with her, from one life to another, in search of the perfect life. The book is Lust For Flying.

To the author:

Dear Matt, you really got me thinking. And imagining. And thinking again and imagining again. One thing is for sure: we’ll meet again soon.   

 Quotes (translation from Romanian edition):

  • “A person was like a city. You couldn’t let a few less desirable parts put you off the whole. There may be bits you don’t like, a few dodgy side streets and suburbs, but the good stuff makes it worthwhile.”
  • “«To want» is an interesting verb. (…) It suggests a lack. Sometimes, if we make up for that lack with something else, the initial desire disappears completely. Maybe the problem is a lack, not a desire.”
  • “Disobedience is the foundation of freedom.”
  • “To be human means to constantly summarize the world in an easy-to-understand story that keeps things simple.”
  • “The mind does not see the things it cannot comprehend.”
  • “Sadness is an intrinsic part of the mechanism called happiness.”
  • “No matter how honest you are in life, people still see the truth only if it is close enough to their reality.”


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