1-Sentence-Summary: The Midnight Library tells the story of Nora, a depressed woman in her 30s, who, on the day she decides to die, finds herself in a library full of lives she could have lived, where she discovers there’s a lot more to life, even her current one, than she had ever imagined.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
What if, instead of having to live your one life one day at a time, you could sample every life you could possibly have? Would you be happier? Would you find “the one?” The life in which everything fits? Matt Haig‘s million-copy bestseller, The Midnight Library, asks these big questions.
The book follows Nora Seed, a British woman in her mid-30s, who is deeply depressed. One night, she decides to commit suicide, but the overdose of sleeping pills sends her into a library between life and death. As time stands still, Nora gets to sample countless lives she could have lived, and by the end of it, one thing is clear: Nora wants to live.
Here are three lessons from this fantastic, life-affirming novel:
- You could live a million lives and still not be satisfied.
- Your “best” life may still not be the right one for you to go through.
- Life won’t always give you an explanation, so just go on living.
Disclaimer: I don’t have any experience with severe depression, and I’m not a professional. If you or someone you know is struggling, please consider this great, global list of helpers. That said, let’s get into the lessons.
Welcome to the Midnight Library!
Lesson 1: Even if you could live a million lives, chances are, you’d still not be satisfied — because that’s human nature.
In an episode of The Sandman, Robert “Hob” Gadling strikes a deal with Dream and Death: In exchange for sharing his experience once a century, he won’t die. Some centuries Hob lives like a pauper, in others he lives like a king. No matter whether he’s super rich or just lost his wife and child, however, Hob asks for 100 more years at each meeting. 600 years later, his conclusion is clear: “I could do this forever.”
Whereas Hob is driven by curiosity and a lust for life, Nora finds something wrong with every life she tries. In the married pub-owner life with her ex Dan, he cheats on her and drinks too much. Had she moved to Australia, her best friend would have died. If swimmer-Nora had become an Olympic gold medalist, she’d still be depressed, and if her cat hadn’t died early last night, it would have died three hours later.
With each disappointment, Nora returns to the library, and so, albeit for different reasons, she and Hob learn the same lesson: You could live a million lives, and yet, you would still not be satisfied — because striving for progress is just human nature.
While this drives civilization, as individuals, we are also happiest when we feel we’re evolving, and to evolve, we need to make a change. That’s why, even if we lived a thousand years, there’d always be things we still feel we need to do.
Don’t strive for a perpetual state of perfection. It doesn’t exist. Learn to be okay with never being completely satisfied, and make the most of this trait rather than regret it.
Lesson 2: What you believe to be your best life may still not be the right one for you to live.
After she has tried being a glaciologist, being a rockstar, and owning a vineyard, Nora finally finds a life that seems to fit like a glove. She is married to her hot neighbor Ash, who’s a surgeon. They have a daughter and a dog. The couple lives in Cambridge, and Nora is a philosophy professor. In other words, everything is perfect.
For weeks, Nora stays in this life, thinking this might be the one, but eventually, she realizes she must leave it behind. For one, Nora hasn’t earned this life. She wants it, but unless she can achieve it through her own actions, she’ll never fully enjoy it. For another, the perfection of Nora’s life came at the expense of who she left behind. A boy she originally gave piano lessons to, for example, ends up being a criminal because Nora never opened the door to being a musician for him.
Usually, we imagine our “best” lives as devoid of sacrifice. Everything is supposed to be easy. But what if that easiness hurts people we care about? Wouldn’t we rather make some compromises and thus see them happy too?
Your best life will only feel as good as you feel you actually deserve it — and to deserve it, ironically, you’ll likely have to make some painful sacrifices. Ultimately “best” is not about achievement. It’s about making choices we are proud of — and whatever that life ends up looking like, even if it’s far from perfect, we’ll be happy that we’re in it.
Lesson 3: “You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it.”
As the Midnight Library collapses, Nora realizes: A life full of problems can still be good, and even a good life might be full of problems. She manages to throw up her sleeping pills and get help. The next day, she reconciles with her estranged brother and passes on her lesson: “You don’t have to understand life,” Nora tells him. “You just have to live it.”
On her social media, she writes:
“We only need to be one person. We only need to feel one existence. We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite. While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility.”
“We can’t tell if any of those other versions [of us] would have been better or worse,” Nora writes. But we can tell that our actual lives are happening right in front of us, “and that is the happening we have to focus on.”
In life, you won’t get an explanation for every breakup, let alone a “what-if” report outlining all your alternate realities. If you focus on the life you have, however, you won’t need either of those things. All we have to do is live one day at a time and trust that, in that one existence, everything that’s needed will be contained.
Enjoy the present, be kind to those around you, and ask for help when you need it. May you never end up at the Midnight Library.
The Midnight Library Review
The Midnight Library is a beautiful book with a clever concept, masterfully executed by Matt Haig. It is easy to read, full of great quotes, smart references, and even some poems and lyrics Nora wrote in her other lives. The book draws from many genres and will make you think deeply, not just about the lives you could lead, but also about the one you do. A magnificent thought experiment with a wonderful conclusion.
Who would I recommend our The Midnight Library summary to?
The 14-year-old boy who gets bullied in school and feels isolated and alone, the 35-year-old stay-at-home wife who feels she should have accomplished more, and anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about past regrets.