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 book on The Midnight Library. Maybe not as insightful as The Humans, but pretty impressive. Of course, he’s almost fifty. His age now seems more appropriate for his storytelling.
Caution: This essay contains spoilers for The Midnight Library. Seriously, big spoilers.
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.” Susan gets frustrated when I read a book that sets me off. Every night I dive in, one week, two weeks. An hour later while going to bed: “Wow, that book really upset me.” The trigger in The Midnight Library was all the talk of regrets. After Nora, the protagonist, died by suicide, she faced her lifetime of regrets. Literally. Mrs. Elm handed Nora a book of all her regrets, and she made Nora read it 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. The alcohol distracted me. The running and the biking too, I never sat still long enough to see what surrounded me. Blogging changed that. I spent hours each week thinking and writing, analyzing myself. And fatherhood—thirty minutes in the dark bottle feeding a baby every night 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 reading her book of regrets, Mrs. Elm encouraged Nora to try one of her other lives. 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. Two universes spiral away from one another with differences, small at first, but over time, a whole different plot forms.
Nora, an amazing swimmer, decided in high school to quit the swim team. “Go check out this other life,” Mrs. Elm said, “the one where you didn’t quit.” Nora tries out countless lives. In some she’s a wildly successful, in others she’s a slacker. In none of the lives is she particularly happy. 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, her mother died. And this life over there, it’s her best friend who’s killed in a car crash while visiting Nora.
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 in the Wizard of Oz “there’s no place like home.”
If I have any complaint about the book, it’s that I knew the ending, the moral, half way 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 Matt was trying to tell me.
Look, I’ve already told you the plot of the book, but I encourage you to read The Midnight Library anyway. I see this as a before and after book. It completely changed my perception of some of my regrets—specifically my failed relationships. Before, I felt helpless, now I have hope.
I wish I didn’t abandon Twitter all those years ago (regret, easily remedied), I’d like to reach out to Matt again and offer a new message without an undertone of hostility. The guy truly understands life. I’m thankful he’s sharing what he knows with the rest of us.
Image credit: Chris Coady, inews.co.uk